Barcelona’s Activist Politicians Discover the Limits of Municipal Power

Barcelona’s Activist Politicians Discover the Limits of Municipal Power
A protester burns a flare during a taxi strike, Barcelona, Spain, June 29, 2017 (AP photo by Manu Fernandez).

BARCELONA—Four years ago, several of Spain’s biggest cities all rejected traditional political parties in their municipal elections. Instead, they elected new civic platforms made up of a mix of activists, academics and lawyers with little experience in government. This was the birth of “municipalism,” an emergent left-wing movement that operates at the level of city government, but with the ambition of driving systemic change. Municipalism has since gone global, but Spain, and specifically Barcelona, remains its heart. The next municipal elections in May will further shape its future.

Even now, municipalism is difficult to define. Whether in power or not, it is anti-establishment: It sets itself against traditional party politics and challenges institutions as they exist. It often emerges from activist movements, and it taps into the desire to take back control and address economic injustice that, in other contexts, has driven resurgent nationalism. Municipalists themselves are generally the young, urban and educated “precariat”: academics, artists and journalists, among others, who all face a lack of economic security. In that sense, the movement looks like the exact opposite of right-wing populism in Europe and the United States.

The municipalist agenda depends on the place; its programs focus on the specific needs of each city’s residents. In Barcelona, for example, the movement crowdsourced most of its agenda, and that meant that affordable housing, tourism controls and reductions in air pollution featured heavily. But there are four foundational elements that every municipalist administration shares: the feminization of politics, the revival of municipal public services, the expansion of the commons, and radical democracy.

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