Commons conquer Barcelona! A victory for David over Goliath

By Mayo Fuster Morell – @lilaroja

Originally published –

Yesterday (May 24th) the candidature “Barcelona in common” won the municipal elections (the option of 1 of each 4 people voting). “Now Madrid”- a candidature also connected to commons ethos – became a key force for the governance of Madrid city. Those are only two of the many surprises from yesterday municipal and regional elections in Spain. Cities might be the departing point of a larger political change. Electoral results opened up an optimist scenario for the attempt to win also the national elections at the end of this year, or even in a larger run, a South European coalition against austerity.

Popular Party and Socialist Party remain the main parties, as since the country transition to democracy in late 70s, but usual politics power suffered an important blow. Bipartisan-ism dropping from 65% at the last elections 4 years ago to 52% of the nationwide vote. The renewal of power forces, instead of its change, are also promoted by status quo interests as by the creation of new parties: the case of “Citizens”, which also emerged with force as a new political protagonist. Still the irruption of citizens candidature is impressive for its dimension and its speed. It also favored the increase of at least 5 points electoral participation.

Only four years after Indignados / 15M rise up for “real democracy now” in opposition to politicians “who don’t represent us” and the “dictatorship of the markets”, its impact has become so evident that cannot be any more denied. The composition of the new candidatures are populated by the social movement fabric. To give a taste of it, Ada Colau direct action anti-eviction activist and squatter is going to be the next major of Barcelona. A joke from history: an activist against housing evictions “evicts” usual politicians from the city hall. Considering leaders trajectory, it could also be said that the cycle started with the anti-Globalization Movement (the background of Colau or Pablo Iglesias, leader of Podemos/Yes we can), but also succeeded to mobilized once again the generation that fought to bring back democracy in Spain against Franco regime (background of Manuela Carmena of “Now Madrid”, a retired judge and the mos probable next major of Madrid).

From the programs, the first thing to hightlight is the centrality of urgent plans to rescue citizens suffocating from the austerity policies, such as with the implementation of several modalities of basic income, and the revision of public services privatization. An ethical code to regulate politicians regarding transparency and the abolition of politician privileges (i.e. limits wages for politicians ($29,000 a year)) and the commitment to support citizens iniciatives.

A part of its political importance, it is fascinating from an organizational perspective. In less than one year and without connections with political, economical, judicial and traditional media power, ordinary citizens coming together have been able to gain important positions in the political system.  A victory for David over Goliath. Combining among its means crowd funding, crowdsourced programs, neighbourhood assemblies, and networked online voting. But also, as in the case of Podemos leader, building on popularity gained by his own TV program.

How was the song? First we take Barcelona, and then we take Manhattan? Indeed, some are working for it. There has been a delegation of activist from NYC visiting Spain during the campaign in order to learn from the experience and “export” such people raising in their own cities. There are many lessons and insights to extract. I try to suggest you just a few hoping inspirational to start similar process in other countries.

The CC effect – One of the – mainly young – citizens struggle that immediately preceded and afterward fed the emergence of the 15M mobilization was provoked by a reaction to a law promoted by the Government, repressive of the online sharing and the free culture (Sinde Law in December 2010). To a large extent this movement of collaborative cultures on the web reacted like Lessig did in 2008, shifting from “Creative Commons” to “Change Congress”. It moved from focusing on sectorial politics connected to intellectual property and Internet regulation to the understanding that to defend these freedoms it is necessary to change the political system as a whole. In this move, the free culture and peer production model became the inspirational organizational form to organize political protest. I explained in detail that move in my luncheon presentation at Berkman center and at this article. The Spanish translation of Yochai Benkler’s “The Wealth of networks” in this 2015 is not a coincidence, as a resource to understand those organizational models. In sum, the sectors holding the expertises around methodologies of co-creation and to engage with new forms of collaboration supported by online means has great political potential.

The Wikipedia “hidden innovation” model – Even if there are large organizational innovations, the discourse should be “plain”, or austere. Mako Hill studied why Wikipedia was able to success in 2001, and other attemps to built an online encyclopedia did not. One of its conclusion is that Wikipedia was the case adopting a more easy to understand concept, even if being innovative in its method. It held firm on the traditional notion of an encyclopedia: an idea old few centuries is easy to understand. Similarly, it could be argue here. The discourse able to raise votes for a political deep change in Spain is not vanguardist or particularly innovative, but popular, accessible to everyone, connected to basic needs. Some point to radical populism reinterpreting Laclau and Mouffe. It is a “battle” around the common sense, around gaining the hegemony. While, more vanguardist models, such as new parties connected to “innovative” discourse and Internet identity, such as Pirate Party or X Party, have been relevant providing organizational ideas, but did not work out obtaining general population votes (X Party obtained 0.64 % at last year European elections). In sum, innovative methods, but popular discourse connected to an agenda of basic common needs.

Top and Down – These organizational processes are neither Top down not Bottom up, but “Top and Down”. Perhaps, more precisely: “A visually recognizable top working for a distributed down“. These forces rely on strong leaders, but also on the raise of a collaborative and free to operate base. A key concept is “overflow”. It refers to the capacity of losing control over the process, and to the freedom to operate in the engagement in the mobilization process. The raising of creativity of actions of support not under the control of the “parties” seems to be a relevant aspect for the success of these processes (this is the case of the movement of graphical liberation around the candidatures). Furthermore, there are not clear boundaries about who is part of the “parties” or who is not, there are not rituals that establish who is part or who is not, but self activation though participation is the way to become part of it. Still leaders have strong presence, their face became one of the key symbols of the process (i.e. the symbol at the voting ballots is not the candidature logo, but the leader face). Visual symbols in the visual Internet, where TV though Internet became again a key channel. Particularly, TV and leadership remains a key channel to engage with popular sectors of population, that early middle class social movements adopters of Internet were not able to connect with. Leaders credibility is built over communication capacity and long social commitment. Candidatures lead by women – not matter their age – (women leaders at main cities such as Barcelona, Madrid and Valencia) are better able to increase vote by transmitting change and having a more democratic leadership style. As Ada Colau Barcelona next major (and originally zapatist put it): “lead by obeying people’s orders”. Leaders positions are based on power “for“ the base, not “over”. In sum, a visually recognizable social leadership, but an uncontrolled distributed form of engagement.

Again, these are just three “impressionist” insights from the current people raising process in Spain. More to come. 2015 is the year of change, so it will continue. Now, time to celebrate. I left you with the “rumba” music of the “run run” singed by our next Barcelona major:

Mayo from Barcelona

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