The Disobedient City and the Stateless Nation

While Barcelona en Comú builds on the same tradition of local autonomy and anti-statism, the Catalan question sets it apart from the Paris Commune.
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By Kate Shea Baird

Barcelona’s default setting is “disobedient”. In 1870, it hosted the founding congress of the anarchist movement in Spain, a political current that has influenced the city’s politics ever since. In 1919, its workers led the La Canadenca strike, winning the right to an 8-hour limit on working days. Barcelona was one of the bastions of Republican resistance during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s and, in 1970, it was the clandestine birthplace of the first gay liberation movement on the Iberian Peninsular.

In his rip-roaring history of his native city, Rebel Barcelona, the journalist Guillem Martínez argues that Barcelona’s non-conformist character is the product of its unique relationship to the Catalan nation and the Spanish state. As he points out, “Barcelona is the largest city in Europe that isn’t the capital of a state. It’s also home to the greatest concentration of Catalan speakers, the most spoken language without a state in Europe. Barcelona is, if one observes these two striking peculiarities, a European oddity.”

According to Martínez, Barcelona is neither Catalonia nor Spain; rather, its rebellious history can be understood through its contentious relationship with both nations, particularly the latter.

If the status of Catalonia has influenced the emergence and evolution of urban rebellions in Barcelona in the past, today is no exception. In the wake of the 2008 economic crisis, social movements in Barcelona—from the PAH housing rights platform to the indignados occupation of Catalonia Square and the 15MPaRato anti-corruption group—have sprung up and evolved in parallel to a growing popular revindication of Catalan sovereignty.

It is in this context that Guanyem, the citizen platform later renamed Barcelona en Comú and currently governing Barcelona city hall, was launched in June of 2014. BComú’s ambivalent relationship with the independence movement in Catalonia, complementary and antagonistic by turns, is perhaps the feature that most sets it apart from its predecessors and contemporaries in the radical municipalist tradition.

The Paris Commune and urban internationalism

The Paris Commune—the revolutionary government that ran the French capital for a few, brief weeks in 1871—has become something of a touchstone of contemporary radical municipalism, and provides a useful archetype from which to reflect on the national exceptionalism of BComú.

In her exploration of the “political imaginary” of the Commune, Kristin Ross explains that “the Communal imagination operated on the preferred scale of the local autonomous unit within an internationalist horizon. It had little room for the nation, or, for that matter, the market or the state.”

She eloquently describes how the Communards reclaimed the vocabulary of citoyen and citoyenne from the 1789 Revolution, not to indicate national belonging, but to identify a social cleavage within the nation and speak to the non-nationally circumscribed “free” woman or man. Echoes of this strain of “glocalism” are evident in many urban struggles today, from the indignados in Spain to the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong. Such movements are intrinsically place-bound but, at the same time, hyper-connected with, and mutually supportive of, their revolutionary peers in cities across the world.

For its part, BComú shares the classic municipalist values of local autonomy and anti-statism. One of its early policy documents is illustrative of this spirit, insisting that “public authorities must value, support and, above all, not get in the way of associationism, self-organization and citizen management of public services and spaces, in order to move towards public-community governance of the city.” BComú also follows in the internationalist tradition of the Paris Commune. One of its priorities is to make Barcelona a global “capital of change”, an example to municipal movements in cities around the world. The discourse of BComú on the refugee crisis, during which it has criticized the paralysis of European states and made clear that cities are willing and able to respond in their place, captures both of these strands in its thinking.

However, while in 19th century Paris a rejection of the state implied the simultaneous rejection of the French nation state under construction at the time, the same cannot be said of 21st century Barcelona. Certainly, BComú shares the Commune’s hostility towards the state and its corresponding nationalism (Spanish, in this case); it made headlines around the world when it removed royal symbols from the city council chamber shortly after taking office. However, BComú’s relationship with the stateless Catalan nation is contested and, as we will see, the source of its characteristic reluctance to reject the concept of the nation per se.

The right to decide everything

BComú was born at a moment in which the dret a decidir (right to decide) of Catalonia dominated the political agenda. In this context, the “municipal wager”—the strategy of activists and new political parties in Spain of making their electoral debut at local level—had a particular advantage in Barcelona: the ability to unite groups and individuals with diverse positions on the national question. Nevertheless, the movement’s initial manifesto did implicitly acknowledge the sovereignty debate, saying: “because we believe in the right to decide, we want to decide, here and now, how we need and want Barcelona to be.”

BComú’s defence of Catalan sovereignty as part of a broader demand for democratization—“the right to decide everything”—became a point of consensus among the wide range of views on independence within the municipal movement. In a statement of support for the pro-independence demonstrations held on the Catalan national day in September of 2014, BComú emphasized that it was:

A plural space shared by people with multiple identities and origins, with diverse perceptions of the national and territorial question. This plurality ranges from support for independence or federalism, through to many who believe that, in current circumstances, a democratic breakaway is required before a free federal or confederal agreement can be reached between equals. In our view, all of these options are legitimate and must be welcome in a municipal project like our own that seeks to break with the status quo.

This ambivalence on the national question sets BComú apart from both the explicitly anti-nationalist tradition of the Paris Commune and from those municipal movements, such as the Popular Unity Candidacies (CUP) in Catalonia or the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) in Turkey, that are explicitly tied to projects of national liberation. BComú has what could be described as an attitude of sceptical sympathy towards the Catalan independence movement (as opposed to the principle of self-determination itself, which it defends wholeheartedly). As we shall see, this position is not always a comfortable one in the current political climate.

The Spanish state: a common adversary

Both the Spanish municipal movement and the Catalan independence movement are, in their own ways, popular responses to the post-2008 economic and political crisis. As movements that demand a more direct involvement of citizens in decision-making, they have a common adversary in the centralist, Spanish state.

BComú’s sympathy for the independence cause is based on a recognition that, whether one shares the goal of independence or not, the movement is a democratic reaction to an authoritarian state that it is at best dismissive, at worst oppressive, of national minorities. Indeed, support for independence shot up after a number of articles of the Catalan statute of autonomy (including that which recognized Catalan nationhood), which had been approved by both the Catalan and Spanish parliaments, and through a referendum, were ruled unconstitutional by the Spanish Supreme Court in 2010. Since then, the central government and Spanish courts have steadfastly rejected attempts to hold a referendum on independence.

In this context, BComú has consistently defended the democratic legitimacy of the independence movement, including by participating in the annual pro-independence demonstrations on the Catalan national day, by supporting the symbolic poll on independence held on November 9, 2014, and by condemning the subsequent indictment of members of the Catalan government for holding the vote. BComú’s then mayoral candidate, Ada Colau, went so far as to say that federalists should vote for independence on November 9 to express their rejection of the central government’s refusal to hold a referendum.

BComú has also been a staunch and vocal supporter of Catalan cultural and linguistic rights, both of which have been the subject of state repression in recent history. As an organization, BComú has a policy of communicating in Catalan as standard and has called for the Catalan government to disobey a 2013 education law (the LOMCE) that threatens to dismantle the practice of teaching in Catalan in public schools.

The enemy within?

However, BComú’s nuanced position on independence has not been welcomed by either side of what is an increasingly polarized national debate. Despite its attempts to maintain a municipal identity, both the pro- and anti-independence camps have tried to shoehorn BComú into the opposing side of the national axis.

This strategy was clear during the local elections, which pro-independence parties framed as a proxy vote on independence (as they have every election since). The incumbent CiU government, as well as the Republican Left and the CUP, all included Catalan independence in their election programs. During the election campaign, BComú’s loyalty to Catalonia was under constant scrutiny and its refusal to take sides on the independence issue interpreted as either political cowardice or cynical electioneering. Ada Colau’s personal views on independence were the subject of constant speculation, and the exceptional occasions on which she spoke in Spanish rather than Catalan were picked up on and politicized by the pro-independence media. A tweet by TV pundit Bernat Dedéu on the eve of the elections summed up the tone of the campaign: “Barcelona can’t have a Spanish mayoress. It’s that simple.”

The reaction of anti-independence forces to the emergence of BComú has been similarly hostile, with both the PP and Ciudadanos branding BComú “separatists”. The most virulent anti-independence discourse has been directed at BComú’s Argentine-born Deputy Mayor, Gerardo Pisarello. The most notorious example of this hostility took place in September 2015, during the Mercè festival, when Pisarello removed a Spanish flag that had been unfurled on the city hall balcony by a PP councillor. In the aftermath, Pisarello was subject to a storm of xenophobic abuse, including a tweet by Ciudadanos MEP, Juan Carlos Girauta, telling him to “get your dirty hands off my flag.”

These attempts to portray BComú as the foreign enemy within have parallels with the arguments employed by the anti-Communards. The critics of the Paris Commune were obsessed by the number of foreigners (real or imagined) among its ranks, a phenomena that Ross describes as “part of the historical tendency of the dominant classes to exhibit class racism, considering workers as, in fact, foreign to the nation”. For its part, BComú has hit back at accusations of treachery by questioning the patriotism of parties whose members have been caught hiding their fortunes in foreign tax havens—an argument that could have come straight out of a speech by Communard Elisabeth Dmitrieff.

The threat from below

The source of the mutual hostility between the municipal movement and the Spanish state is relatively easy to identify: the municipal movement in Barcelona and the rest of Spain represents the most successful assault on establishment institutions since the start of the crisis. What is more, this is a movement whose diverse manifestations in the different national territories of the country are making visible a plurinational reality that stands in stark contrast to Spain’s homogenizing national narrative.