Igor Stokfiszewski: Barcelona en Comú’s and Ada Colau’s nomination for mayor of the city in this year’s Spanish local elections was an electoral success. That must have been a very emotional issue for social movements in the capital of Catalonia. I believe it was also important for those who had made an effort to transform social energies emerging from the 15th of May movement revolution into political success.
Pantxo Ramas: It’s true. I remember the first meetings in the headquarters of Barcelona en Comú just after the voting took place. We were worried we’d win! That was because of the complex situation in Barcelona, in Spain, and in Europe. But we were also aware of both the responsibility and the necessity of being in a position of power, of having the possibility to change the life of the city.
What exactly do you mean by the complexity of the situation in the case of Barcelona?
The complexity is marked by the fact that you intervene in the situation of crisis, of precarity and poverty, especially on the peripheries of Barcelona but not only there. And that it all happens in a city captured by flows of capital in a very a material sense. Public space in Barcelona is entirely taken over by tourism. Social production in culture or in ways of living is invaded by the logic of extraction of value.
In a way Barcelona en Comú and Ada Colau were given the instruments for an institutionalised municipal revolution.
The real challenge is not the installation of a new operating system within the city. It is mostly about a transition of a welfare system that had been wiped out by the machine of neoliberalisation in the last 20 years. Secondly, on the level of the Spanish State, with the victory of many coalitions of change in local elections all around Spain, the challenge is create a real and concrete alternative to the system of bipolarity of the Socialist Party and the Popular Party that has – as in most of western democracies with a bipolar political landscape – constructed a fake model of representation.
What’s Barcelona en Comú’s and Ada Colau’s roadmap towards the implementation of change? What are your main objectives and means of achieving them?
Barcelona en Comú, both in terms of programme and organisation, follows four different lines.
The first one is the necessity of a different organisation of the city’s economic production. The great innovation that Barcelona en Comú wants to introduce is an improvement to the cooperative economy and recognition of the reproductive economy of the city’s life. It demands a critical engagement in the present form of economic production in the city, that is with tourism, technology, the crisis of Fordism, if you want. The point is how you deal with this hegemony of neoliberalism in order to produce a different way of managing this social production. In this sense the idea of cooperativism, the idea of reproduction, of a critique of the appropriation and exploitation machine that neoliberalism has produced in the last 20 years is surely one of the lines. On an institutional level, that objective refers to the question of transforming the institutions of economic activation that the municipal body controls in order to perform this transition.
The second matter is that of social and civil rights. Questions we raise in this dimension are: is there a possibility, on the municipal level, for the re-appropriation of welfare? Then – how can we think about the construction of civil and social rights, social services, of programmes of welfare which are constructed from the bottom up and towards the appropriation of the state? The challenge here is to redesign policies in a way that intervenes and participates in the life of the people in many aspects: for example in the cycle of life, the inclusion of children and old people, in matters of gender or poverty. We need an ecological transition which maintains the life of welfare but changes the logic of this life.
Then we have the question of the reinvention of democracy, which is completely linked to the first two. We cannot reinvent democracy without thinking about the economic circuit, without thinking about the re-appropriation of welfare that starts from the people. But it is also the need to rethink the core of the word “participation” that has been emptied out by neoliberal policies. So, we ask ourselves a question: how can people become a part of the production of public policies? That means: a part of the production of knowledge about society and the technicalities of public policies, as well as the management of these policies. Participation is a process that involves different sides of social life – public workers, social organisations, movements, but also society in a much broader sense. How to put all of them in a position where they can not only decide which plan for the street they live on to implement, but they can sit in the street, look at the street, discuss it and decide what needs to happen there, then see what are the resources and instruments we can use to modify the street and eventually in fact modify it. A matter of participation then becomes a matter of being part of a political production of public policies.
The fourth element is the urban dimension. How we can rethink the logic of public space, rethink the ecology of the city in a sense that – again – it strives towards the invention of a new relationship between social life – the natural life of the city in terms of a natural human life – and the life of the city that needs to contrast the logic of speculation, of exploitation, the logic of dispossession that neoliberalism is imposing on the city? On the material level that is a matter of how we deal with natural resources, with mobility, the construction of public space, the construction of events.
In this sense we have a circuit – the economy, social and civil rights, the mechanism of political participation as social and political production, and finally an ecological understanding of what the life of the city is. That has been the construction of the administrative organisation of the municipality on an institutional level in these months.
What do you perceive as the most challenging obstacles against achieving these objectives? Where do you expect to face the strongest resistance? Do you think it could come from a political or economic direction? Maybe from a social one as well?
Well, from all of them but in different ways. The first two are clear about having contrasting interests with us. The interest of the political elites of Catalonia, Spain, and Europe are obviously against us. This is a problem, this is a danger but this is also a reason for us to persevere. We know that there’s a conflict there and we want to be the protagonist of this conflict. Now, the question is – I think – how do we maintain the social tension within the people of Barcelona in order to be a part of this conflict all together. If this tension between the social and the institutional weakens, the possibilities of contrasting political and economic oppressions will be scarce. In this sense there’s a responsibility on those who are in the municipality and in the political party Barcelona en Comú. The way to carry this responsibility is to be truthful and sincere, to be clear about what we are doing, what are the possibilities, it is to be ethical and a part of society in the first place – and only then a part of institutions.
On the other hand, at the base of the institution what is necessary is a dimension of generous attention. That doesn’t mean to not be critical, but to just stay active. We need to have people in the city that do not think that it’s the government’s responsibility. The task of maintaining these tensions against elites depends on a permanent mobilization of the people and permanent participation of the people. Here’s an example of a current issue: there’s a call of the refugees’ cities including Barcelona that was co-initiated by Ada Colau. This is the moment of claiming the right to the city both by the institutions and the people. For the institution it means disobedience against the institutional instruments of Europe and Spain about migration through providing resources, maintaining public debate on these questions. But there’s the responsibility of the people who have produced a critical discourse about migration and welcoming attitudes towards refugees and migrants in the last 20, 30 years. Today, they firstly have the responsibility of being the protagonists of these welcoming policies. These policies can be different only in the case of public institutions producing a legal possibility which is then appropriated by the people, inhabited by the social circuits of production, becomes part of the social production of the city. We cannot see welcoming as an assistant policy, we must see it as an encounter of the real productive forces of Europe today, that is – the people.
Ada Colau and Barcelona en Comú are communicating an emotional link between the institution and society. This emotion is a flow which allows these policies to become real, truthful, sincere and then – something that can change the city.
When speaking about the possibilities of overcoming obstacles – one of them is also creating coalitions. As you’ve mentioned, Barcelona is not the only municipality in Spain run by emancipatory leftist forces after the local elections in May. There are eight more including Madrid, Saragossa, and others. Recently, the “rebel cities” network held a meeting in Barcelona. Can this municipal coalition movement grow in Spain and become a relevant political subjectivity in terms of pushing forward the implementation of policies you were speaking about on a national level and beyond?
The municipal dimension is very important but cannot be the only one. In practical terms – the competences of municipalities are specific, the competences of national government are another matter, the competences of society are yet another one and the dimension of Europe is crucial to modify what’s happening. This moment of local elections was crucial in order to strengthen the municipal, local challenge to the hegemony of neoliberalism but it also needs to trigger other processes. In the same sense as the 15 May movement has been a trigger to Podemos and this municipal attack, this municipal attack has to be a trigger for new social proliferation. We cannot think this is the responsibility of municipalities only, nor of Podemos themselves, nor of social movements or mobilised society. We have to think about these forces as ones that inhabit an ecology that has to grow. When we have a tree, underneath we have grass, the grass can grow because the tree has leaves which produce shade, which allows water to remain longer in the ground. Many times in the tradition of autonomous politics or social movements, we have seen an understanding of the social against the political in a moral sense. The social is a good, the political is corrupt. The idea of ecology allows us to think in terms of material necessity. We need the political for the social to survive and we need the social to survive in order to make the political stronger. Understanding these relationships in an ecological dimension is – according to me – a very important step forwards that has been made in the last years towards introducing change. What can we learn – for instance – from what has happened to Syriza and Alexis Tsipras? We can have a political defeat on a national and European arena as in the case of Tsipras, but until there’s no betrayal against social movements and society in a boarder sense, change is always possible. This is the challenge in Barcelona today.