Reclaiming the City
If municipal platforms are to become a standard bearer of social justice and democracy, autonomous counterpowers will have to be developed from below.
In a world flooded by news of fluctuating markets, stagnating economies, outraged multitudes and insurgent violence, it is as if anything can spark widespread revolt, whether it’s a mall in Turkey, the price of a metro ticket in Brazil or a squat eviction in Barcelona.
The simultaneity of these events often obscures the voices in the crowds, reducing them to indistinguishable frequencies in a wall of noise. Yet, if we tune out of the broader context of global unrest and tune in to the local level at which protests are taking place, we can hear a common theme underlying them.
That theme is people seeing their ability to decide what kind of communities they want to live in perverted by faceless processes that are far removed from their reality and unaccountable to it. It is a situation Marco Revelli refers to as “the new disorder” of globalization, which refracts and diverts any attempt to trace a continuum over the uniform spatiality of the old world’s great distances and national public spheres. Within this disorder, the city is once again emerging as the key terrain in the cartography of emancipatory struggle.
It was in a similar situation of social upheaval that Henri Lefèbvre defined the concept of “the right to the city.” In the wildcat general strikes and decentralized occupations of May 1968 in France, the sociologist saw a common demand for “a transformed and renewed access to urban life.” Years later, David Harvey revived Lefèbvre’s idea, writing that:
The right to the city is far more than the individual liberty to access urban resources: it is a right to change ourselves by changing the city. It is, moreover, a common rather than an individual right, since this transformation inevitably depends upon the exercise of a collective power to reshape the processes of urbanisation.
For Murray Bookchin, this collective power is embodied in the historical notion of the city, a notion that urbanization is ultimately at war with. In that war, the deliberative sociality of the politics practiced by the city is destroyed through the imposition of statecraft by a centralized power, subordinating the social organization of life to the technical logic of capital.
Revelli complements this idea when he claims that the massive infrastructures of highway, railroad, postal, electric, telegraph and telephone networks recode social space (i.e., the physical and non-physical spaces of human interaction) as a public space constructed and controlled within the borders of the nation state.
In both of these frameworks, public space is conceived by a sovereign power as the smooth space linking nodes in the global circuits of capital. The optimal state of that public space is one in which all of the value produced within its boundaries adheres to the norms that bind the capitalist order, while any alternative form of value is expelled.
Insofar as the nation state seeks to homogenize the diversity of its population under a single identity, it is the ideal institutional form for carrying out such a task. Yet the identity that sustains a nation state is a curious one: distant and abstracted from daily life in the local realities it seeks to encompass, it is ultimately local to nowhere. Herein lies the disruptive and emancipatory potential of a radical municipalist politics. Through its proximity to the reality of city life, it confronts the statecraft of the sovereign.
Cities for the Common Good
Since the indignados first burst onto the scene in 2011, Spain has been a laboratory for bottom-up organization and empowerment. The movement not only managed to set the political agenda by framing neoliberal austerity and structural adjustment as contrary to basic notions of democracy, but also generated countless neighborhood assemblies and amplified pre-existing assembly-based movements, such as the Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca (the PAH or Mortgage Victims’ Platform).
However, the ability of these movements to gather support from the vast majority of the country’s population did not translate to much in the way of institutional change, despite their efforts to use all of the formal mechanisms at their disposal. As people grew increasingly frustrated with the indifference of the political class, many began to perceive an “institutional glass ceiling.”
An uphill battle
The goals espoused by the radical municipal governments in Spain are certainly ambitious. Their first one hundred days in office have been characterized by a promising pragmatic approach to implementing a bold policy program coupled with the occasional flamboyant gesture, like José María ‘Kichi’ González replacing a painting of the King of Spain in the mayor’s office with one of Fermín Salvochea, the nineteenth-century anarchist mayor of Cádiz.
The challenges facing Spain’s radical city governments are many.
But the challenges facing city governments are many. Again, the case of Barcelona En Comú is illustrative. Less than a week after elections, the upper ranks of the city police handed in their resignation. They were upset that one of the new city government’s main representatives is Jaume Asens, a prominent human rights lawyer who has helped prosecute Catalonia’s biggest corruption scandals, uncovered cases of torture by city police and frequently defended squatters, sex workers, anarchists, participants in the Gaza freedom flotilla and Guantanamo prisoners.
As a political move, it was remarkably similar to the New York police union’s actions against Mayor Bill De Blasio, whose relatively mild remarks regarding the murder of Eric Garner were less flattering than what police have become accustomed to hearing from elected officials.
Moreover, they are also facing an intensely hostile media landscape dominated by media groups who clearly side with the establishment. The most widely read newspaper in Barcelona is the conservative daily La Vanguardia, which belongs to Spain’s oldest media holding, the Grupo Godó. Primarily controlled by the family of the Count of Godó, the group also owns a tremendous portion of the Catalan television channels and radio stations.
The rest of the city’s media landscape is distributed among the established Spanish media groups. Meanwhile, independent media outlets have small audiences fragmented by diverging opinions on the new representatives’ decision to enter institutional politics.
Finally like most of the radical municipal platforms, Barcelona En Comú are currently governing the city from a minority position, meaning that many of their decisions must be approved by the other parties in order to be implemented. Though the radical left pro-independence Candidatura d’Unitat Popular (CUP) is ostensibly an ally, they do not hold enough seats to make a majority. Thus, any decisions must count with the support of at least one establishment party.
All of these disadvantages were on display during a revealing dispute that took place during the summer of 2015. In the weeks following the new government’s inauguration, Barcelona’s main commercial and touristic areas saw an increasing presence of African street vendors, specifically in parts of the city where they were previously less visible. It is unclear whether this increase was simply due to a higher number of tourists (their main clientele) or if, as some street vendors have claimed, city police told them to sell in these areas.
Over the following weeks, the Grupo Godó ran daily reports portraying the situation as the result of a chaotic transfer of power. This was not the first time they had done this. The last time a left-wing coalition governed Barcelona, La Vanguardia ran a series of front-page stories depicting street vendors, prostitutes, homeless people and squatters as a problem of social hygiene and urban and moral decay.
Their narrative was a paradigmatic example of what the geographer Neil Smith refers to as “the revanchist city,” a vengeful reaction of elites against the supposed “theft” of the city, characterized by “a desperate defense of a challenged phalanx of privileges, cloaked in the populist language of civic morality, family values and neighbourhood security.”
Against the reaction of the city’s revanchist elite, socially marginalized groups have practically no collective voice.
Against the reaction of the city’s revanchist elite, socially marginalized groups have practically no collective voice.
Against this reaction, socially marginalized groups have practically no collective voice. To defend their interests, they are forced to delegate political action and rely primarily on the protests and public statements of activists and NGOs, who are often distant from the social realities of the populations targeted by social cleansing.
Further complicating the situation, the lack of contact and enormous gap between the realities experienced by African street vendors and average citizens has allowed insidious myths to take root in society and proliferate unchallenged. The most pernicious of these is the idea that street vending networks are controlled by so-called “mafias,” a notion that is frequently parroted in the media based purely on anecdotal claims. Coupled with their lack of self-representation, this makes it especially difficult for the street vendors and similarly marginalized groups to advance a counter-hegemonic narrative concerning their work, much less engage in meaningful collective bargaining.
Nonetheless, Barcelona En Comú responded to the conflict with a systematic effort to look for a “social response” to the problems faced by street vendors, as opposed to a “police response” to the problem of public order described by the media and the police. They convened a negotiating table that brought together city police, social organizations, activists, NGOs and street vendors to look for a just solution. It was the first time street vendors were recognized as legitimate interlocutors by the public administration. Their efforts, however, were mostly drowned out by the hostile rhetoric of the establishment press.
When no agreement was reached at the negotiating table, the conflict dragged on. Then on August 11, a Senegalese street vendor named Mor Sylla died under questionable circumstances during a police operation in Salou. The conflict escalated dramatically and a riot broke out in the center of the touristic town.
Instead of responding to the tense social climate this generated by relaxing pressure on street vendors, Barcelona police continued to act aggressively, resulting in several clashes. Finally, when a scuffle broke out in a central metro station and some vendors responded by throwing rocks at the police, four police were injured, as well as four vendors and one bystander. Disappointingly, Barcelona En Comú responded by deploying riot police in the city center to dissuade the vendors from gathering in the areas where they had been working.
The power of self-representation
The success of the revanchist campaign against African street vendors outlines the real distribution of power in a major city. With no majority, a hostile media landscape and a status quo in which the dominant social norms sustain an unjust social order, even a government made up of social activists with years of experience in bottom-up organizing and civil disobedience can be pushed to make decisions that reinforce the order they seek to subvert.
Perhaps most unsettling is the ability of the police to condition the political agenda. The potentially disastrous repercussions of allowing the police to impose its own ideology on governing institutions cannot be overstated.
If Barcelona is to become a “standard bearer of social justice and democracy,” this cannot be achieved by decree.
If Barcelona is to become, as Barcelona En Comú state in their program, a “standard bearer of social justice and democracy,” this cannot be achieved by decree. Autonomous counterpowers must be developed to challenge dominant cultural frameworks and force the city government to advance the interests of its most marginalized residents.
In the revanchist city, these residents are overwhelmingly those whose poverty is criminalized: sex workers, street vendors, the homeless, street artists, small drug offenders, addicts and so on. There is a pressing need for autonomous platforms that allow the aforementioned collectives to represent themselves without having to delegate their collective voice to others. A broader movement for the right to the city could also be a step forward. However, it is also possible that such a movement would end up absorbing marginalized voices in an attempt to link them with middle-class interests.
Another critical challenge is the media landscape. Independent media have been successful in periodically breaking important stories. But they have not been so successful in promoting a counter-hegemonic narrative beyond their limited audiences. Such a narrative, or series of narratives, will need a much stronger foothold in the media landscape if they are to produce and sustain a cultural shift.