Catalonia in Common
= Catalunya en comú, Initiated by Barcelona en Comú in October 2016
Alain Ambrosi and Nancy Thede:
"Catalunya en comú defines itself as an innovative political space of the Catalan left. Initiated by Barcelona in Comú a little less than a year after its election to city hall, the initiave was launched in October 2016. A short manifesto explained its raison-d’être and presented an “ideario politico” (a political project) of some 100 pages for broad discussion over 5 months which culminated in a constituent assembly last April 8. This new political subject defines itself as “a left-wing Catalan organisation that aims to govern and to transform the economic, political and social structures of the present neo-liberal system.” Its originality in the political panorama of Catalonia and of Spain is its engagement with “a new way of doing politics, a politics of the commons where grassroots people and communities are the protagonists.” In response to those who see its emergence only in the context of the impending referendum, it affirms: “We propose a profound systemic, revolutionary change in our economic, social, environmental and political model.” (http://www.remixthecommons.org/2017/06/interview_subirat/?lang=en)
" At the outset there was Guanyem, which was in fact the beginning of Barcelona en Comú: the first meetings were in February-March 2014. Who was involved? this is quite simultaneous with the decision by Podemos to compete in the European Parliament elections in May 2014. Podemos organises in February 2014; Guanyem begins organising in February- March 2014 to compete in the municipal elections of May 2015.
Going farther back, there is a phase of intense social mobilisation against austerity policies between 2011 and 2013. If we look at the statistics of the Ministry of the Interior on the number of demonstrations, it is impressive, there were never as many demonstrations as during that period, but after mid-2013 they start to taper off. There is a feeling that there are limits and that demonstrations can’t obtain the desired changes in a situation where the right-wing Popular Party (PP) holds an absolute majority. So the debate emerges within the social movements as to whether it’s a good idea to attempt to move into the institutions.
Podemos chooses the most accessible scenario, that of the European elections, because these elections have a single circonscription, so all of Spain is a single riding, with a very high level of proportionality, so with few votes you get high representation because there are 60-some seats, so with one million votes they obtained 5 seats. And people vote more freely in these elections because apparently the stakes are not very high, so they are elections that are good for testing strategies. In contrast, here in Barcelona, we chose the municipal elections as the central target because here there is a long history of municipalism.
So this sets the stage for the period that began in 2014 with Guanyem and Podemos and the European elections and in May 2015 with the municipal elections where in 4 of the 5 major cities – Barcelona, Madrid, Valencia and Zaragoza – alternative coalitions win that are not linked to either of the two major political parties (PP and the Socialist Party – PSOE) that have dominated the national political scene since the return to democracy in 1977. And in the autonomous elections, a new political cycle also begins, in which we still are. If we go farther back, to 2011 – there are a couple of maps that show the correlation between the occupation of plazas in the 15-M with the number of alternative citizen canadidacies at the municipal level.
So Podemos and all the alternative citizen coalitions all refer to the 15M as their founding moment. But the 15M is not a movement, it was a moment, an event. You must have heard the joke about the stranger who arrives and wants to talk to the 15M – but there is no 15M, it has no spokespersons and no address. But everyone considers it very important because it transformed the political scene in its wake." (http://www.remixthecommons.org/2017/06/interview_subirat/?lang=en)
Joan Subirats, interviewed by Alain Ambrosi and Nancy Thede.
On the ‘Ideario politico’ (the political project of Un Pais en Comu), a Commons-inspired political programme
- "AA — When one reads the ‘Ideario politico’ (the political project of Un Pais en Comu) it’s a sort of lesson in political economy, political philosophy as well, but also a vast programme, and the left has never put forward this type of Commons-inspired programme before, be it in Catalunya or in Spain or probably internationally. How do you see its contribution in the context of the Commons ecosystem? There have been experiences of the Commons without the Commons label, as in Latin America …
JS — Yes, in Catalunya the anarcho-sindicalist movement…
- AA — Of course, but more recently, the idea of ‘Buen Vivir’ …
JS — Yes, but when you go to Latin America and you talk about that, it all revolves around the State. But here, we try not to be state-centric. We are trying to avoid the idea that the only possible transformation needs to depend on the State.
- AA — But in the ‘Ideario’ a lot of discussion is devoted to public services as well, this implies that the State has to exist. And in the Commons vocabulary there is the concept of the ‘partner-state’, but it doesn’t appear in the Ideario…
JS — Yes, there’s a margin there: the resilience of the new politics depends more on the capacity to create ‘muscled’ collective spaces – public, collective, common – than on the occupation of the institutions. But without the occupation of the institutions, it’s very difficult to construct those spaces. The example that comes to mind for me is from Copenhagen: there it was the cooperatives of the workers’ unions that built the big housing coops that exist now; also, the municipal government when the left was in power built a lot of public housing; then when a right-wing government came to power, it privatised all the public housing but it couldn’t privatise the cooperatives. So in the end, things that are strictly state-based are more vulnerable than when you build collective strength. So if we are able to benefit from these spaces in order to build ‘collective muscle’, using our presence in the institutions, this will end up being more resilient, more stable over time than if we put all our eggs in the State basket. So the Barcelona city government has civic social centres that are municipal property, but what is important is to succeed in ensuring that these centres are controlled by the community, that each community make them its own despite the fact that the property is officially that of the municipality, but they must be managed through a process of community management. So you need to build in the community a process of appropriation of institutions that ends up being stronger than if it were all in the hands of the State.
Now we are discussing citizen heritage, how the city government can use its property – houses, buildings – and it can cede them for a certain period in order to construct collective spaces. For example, 8 building sites that belong to the municipality have been put up for auction on 100-year leases for community organisations to build housing cooperatives. This doesn’t take property away from the public sphere and at the same time it generates collective strength. But a certain sector of the political left here, the CUP, criticises this as privatisation of public space. They think Barcelona en Comun should build public housing instead, state-owned housing. That’s a big difference. And people are aware of that, but at the same time there are doubts about whether this makes sense, whether there is sufficient strength within the community so that this can work. Or, for example, the most common criticism is that “you have an idea of the public, the collective, the Commons, that implies capacities in the community that are only present in the middle classes that have the knowledge, the organisational capacity… so it’s a very elitist vision of the collective because the popular sectors, without the backing of the State, won’t be able to do this.” Well, we’re going to try to combine things so it can work, but we don’t want to keep converting the public into the ‘state’.
Nancy Fraser wrote an article on the triple movement – looking at Polanyi’s work on the ‘double movement’ in the Great Transformation, that is the movement towards mercantilisation, and the opposite movement it stimulated towards protection. Polanyi talks about the confrontation of these 2 movements in the early 20th century, and the State – in its soviet form or in its fascist form – as a protectionist response of society which demands protection when faced with the uncertainty, the fragility the double movement engenders. Nancy Fraser says that all that is true, but we’re no longer in the 20th century, we’re in the 21st century where factors like individual emancipation, diversity, feminism are all very important – so we shouldn’t be in favour of a protectionist movement that continues to be patriarchal and hierarchical. We need a movement for protection that generates autonomy – and there resides what I think is one of the keys of the Commons movement. The idea of being able to get protection – so, a capacity of reaction against the dynamics of the market attacks – without losing the strength of diversity, of personal emancipation, of feminism, the non-hierarchical, the non-patriarchal, the idea that somebody decide for me what I need to do and how I will be protected. Let me self-protect myself too, let me be a protagonist too of this protection. And this is contradictory with the state-centric tradition.
A Commons Economy, Participation and Co-production of Policy
- AA — The first theme of the ‘Ideario’ is the economy – you are an economist, amongst other things – how do you see this proposal in terms of the Commons? For example, there is a lot of discussion now about ‘open cooperativism’, etc. What you were saying about the cooperative movement here, that it is very strong but not sufficient…
JS — In some aspects no. For example, the city wanted to open a new contract for communications (telephone, internet) – now there are the big companies Telefonica, Movistar, Vodafone, Orange, etc: there’s a cooperative called ‘Som Connexion’ (We are connection)- or ‘Som Energia’ (We are energy) that’s a lot bigger – it has 40,000 members – but these cooperatives, it would be fantastic if the city were to give them the contract for energy or for communication, but they aren’t capable of managing that at the moment. So if they take it, we’d all have big problems: faulty connections, lack of electrical power – because they’re growing for sure but they don’t yet have the ‘muscle’, the capacity they need to take this on.
So we have to continue investing in this, it’s not going to take care of itself. On the other hand, in other areas, like home services for the elderly, we do have very strong cooperatives, Abacus for example is a cooperative for book distribution that has 800 000 members, so that is a coop that’s very powerful, and there are others. But in general, the more powerful the coop, the less politicised it is – they tend to transform themselves into big service companies. But now they are understanding that perhaps it would be in their interest to have a different vision; there has been a very politicised movement in the grassroots level coops that is contradictory with the entrepreneurial trend in the big coops. So we’re in this process right now: yes, there are very big, very strong coops and there are also smaller, more political ones but they don’t have sufficient muscle yet.
- AA — When we look at issues of participation, co-production of policy and such, it is also a question of culture, a culture of co-production that doesn’t exist. In the neighbourhoods, yes there is a trend to revamping participation, but when we talk to people in the local-level committees they say ‘Sure, people come to the meetings, but because they want a tree planted here…’ and they don’t have that vision of co-creation. So first there has to be a sort of cultural revolution ?
JS — There are places where there has been a stronger community tradition that could well converge with this. Some neighbourhoods like Roquetes for example, Barceloneta or Sants, have very strong associational traditions. If you go to Roquetes to the meeting of the community plan, everybody is there: the people from the primary medical services centre, the doctors, the schools are there, the local police, the social workers – and they hold meetings every 2 weeks and they know everything that goes on in the area, and they transfer cases amongst themselves: “we detected this case, how do we deal with it?” etc. The community fabric in those neighbourhoods functions really well. So what can you add to that fabric so that it can go a bit further? On the other hand, in other neighbourhoods like Ciutat Meridiana, in 5 years 50% of the population has changed, so it’s very difficult to create community where the level of expulsion or change is so high. In Sants, in Ca Batlló, there was a very interesting experience where people want to create a cooperative neighbourhood – it’s a bit polemical – they want to create a public school without using public funds, instead using money from the participants themselves, because the coop tradition in Sants is very anarchist, libertarian – so they promote the idea of a public school, open to all, but not using public funds. And it would have its own educational philosophy, that wouldn’t have to submit to standard educational discipline. And groups have appeared in different neighbourhoods dedicated to shared child-raising where there are no pre-schools for children between 0 and 3 years, or people prefer not to take the kids to public pre-schools because they find them too rigid, so they prefer generating relationships amongst parents. So what should the role of the city government be with respect to such initiatives? Should it facilitate or not? There’s a debate about how to position the municipality with respect to these initiatives that are interesting but then when, inside Barcelona en Comú or Catalunya en Comú, the person who is in charge of these issues comes with a more traditional union perspective and says “This is crazy, what we need to do is to create public schools with teachers who are professional civil servants. These experiments are fine for gentrified zones, but in reality…’” And they are partly right. So we’re in that sort of situation, which is a bit ambivalent. We’re conscious that we need to go beyond a state-centric approach, but at the same time we need to be very conscious that if we don’t reinforce the institutional role, the social fragilities are very acute.
The Commons and Issues of Sovereignty, Interdependence and the « Right to Decide »
- AA — Another high-profile issue is that of sovereignty. The way it’s presented in the Ideario is criticised both by those who want a unified Spain and by those who want Catalan independence. Sovereignty is simply another word for independence in the view of many people. But the way it’s presented in the Ideario is more complex and comprehensive, linked to autonomy at every level …
JS — Exactly: it’s plural, in lower case and plural: sovereignties. The idea is a bit like what I said earlier about the city, that we want to take back the city. We want to recover the collective capacity to decide over what affects us. So it’s fine to talk about the sovereignty of Catalonia, but we also need to talk about digital sovereignty, water sovereignty, energy sovereignty, housing sovereignty – sovereignty in the sense of the capacity to decide over that which affects us. So we don’t have to wait until we have sovereignty over Catalonia in order to grapple with all this. And this has obvious effects: for example, something we are trying to develop here: a transit card that would be valid on all forms of public transit – like the “Oyster” in London, and many other cities have them – an electronic card that you can use for the train, the metro, the bus: the first thing the Barcelona city government did on this was to ask the question “Who will own the data? “. That’s sovereignty. The entity that controls the data on who moves and how in metropolitan Barcelona has an incredible stock of information with a clear commercial value. So will it belong to the company that incorporates the technology? or will the data belong to the municipality and the municipality will do with it what it needs? At the moment, they are installing digital electricity metres and digital water metres: but to whom do the data belong? because these are public concessions, concessions to enterprises in order that they provide a public service – so who owns the data?
This is a central issue. And it is raised in many other aspects, like food sovereignty. So, we want to ensure that in the future Barcelona be less dependent on the exterior for its food needs, as far as possible. So you need to work to obtain local foodstuffs, control over the products that enter – and that implies food sovereignty, it implies discussing all this. So, without saying that the sovereignty of Catalonia isn’t important, we need to discuss the other sovereignties. Because, suppose we attain the sovereignty of Catalonia as an independent state, but we are still highly dependent in all the other areas. We need to confront this. I don’t think it’s a way of avoiding the issue, it’s a way of making it more complex, of understanding that today the Westphalian concept of State sovereignty no longer makes much sense. I think we all agree on that. We are very interdependent, so how do we choose our interdependencies? That would be real sovereignty, not to be independent because that’s impossible, but rather how to better choose your interdependencies so that they have a more public content." (http://www.remixthecommons.org/2017/06/interview_subirat/?lang=en)
From the notes of the Subirats interview :
↑ “A country in common”. The process, carried out in a transparent and well-documented manner, began with a negotiation with certain left-wing parties and movements, and encouraged discussion and new proposals at popular assemblies throughout the region and in online discussion open to the public. More than 3,000 people participated in 70 assemblies and more than 1,700 proposals and amendments were made online with the webpage registering nearly 130,000 hits. The Assembly discussed and voted on the various amendments and agreed on a transitional structure composed of a coordinating body of 120 members and an executive committee of 33 members, each with a one-year mandate to propose an ethical code, statutes, an organizational structure and political options in the unfolding conjuncture.
↑ “La Politica de Comù” in Nous horitzons (New Horizons) No. 215, 2017.
↑ The election result was no surprise: ‘A country in common’ founder Xavier Domenech will preside the Executive Committee and Ada Colau, the current mayor of Barcelona, is president of the coordinating body. The membership, via an internet vote, chose on May 20 a new name preferring “Catalunya en Comù” to “En Comú podem”, thus distinguishing itself from the 2015 Catalan coalition with Podemos, also called “En comu podem” and signalling a reinforcement of the “Barcelona en Comù” wing with respect to the supporters of Podemos in the new entity. The rejection of the earlier name ‘Un Pais en Comu’ may also denote a desire to distance itself from a pro-independence stance.