In 2016 direct democracy mayoral candidates won elections in Rome and Turin as part of Italy’s 5 Star movement.
“The transparency and political openness that helped the 5 Star Movement rise to power must now bring the party’s current and future proposals to the forefront if it hopes to achieve any lasting change.”
With the United Kingdom now fully committed to Brexit, the European Union can finally revert to what was the secret plan all along. As prescribed in the secret addenda to the Treaties of Rome, Lisbon and Maastricht, the EU will be belgianised – in short: it will become a forced synthesis between north and south, never stronger than when it is on the verge of breaking up, which is always.
Belgium itself is the world capital of surrealism, a country of which Rene Magritte, one of its most famous artists, might well have said: Ceci n’est pas un pays. And being a high-functioning non-country is exactly the European Union’s best hope for the future.
So it’s no coincidence that Brussels, the capital of both Belgium and of its federated region Flanders (1), is also the capital of Europe. This is in preparation for the expansion of the Kingdom of Belgium. One day soon, it will balloon to become a super-state covering much of continental Europe.
As revealed by this map (burn after reading):
Belgium in its current shape has only 66.5 km of coast. Barring tiny island nations like Niue, mini-states like Monaco and of course landlocked countries, that makes Belgium the country with the seventh-shortest shoreline in the world (2). No more: the Belgian coast will expand to stretch hundreds of kilometres along what will henceforth be known as the Belgian Channel – say goodbye to the English one – but strangely, miraculously, still only run from De Panne in the west to Knokke in the east, as it does now.
Medium-sized Belgian towns such as Ghent, Leuven, Charleroi and Antwerp will become European megacities, much as they once were, during the Middle Ages.
The Ardennes, the softly undulating hill country in the south of Belgium, will move south and merge with the more pronounced indentations of the Alps. Thus, Switzerland will become the Swiss Ardennes, northern Italy now is the Italian Ardennes, and Austria is just the Austrian Ardennes.
The Flemings in the north of Belgium speak Dutch, the Walloons in the south speak French, a fact inspiring most observers to believe a breakup of Belgium would lead to the respective halves of the country merging with the Netherlands and France, respectively. They have got it backwards: it is the Dutch and French who speak a dialect of Flemish and Walloon. This will facilitate their absorption into the Belgian superstate. The Germans, for their part, speak a form of Luxembourgeois.
Luxembourg, for those not in the know, is a miniature version of Belgium: a multilingual, multicultural monarchy quietly merging the best bits of its neighbours into a highly comfortable and successful way of life. While other countries shrink, it gets to expand together with Belgium, and dominates the southwest of Europe.
The UK has shrunk to a very Little England indeed. Its capital, bereft of all those bankers, is henceforth known as the Village of London. Don’t get hit by any of those tumbleweeds rolling through Oxford Street. On the upside: rents have plummeted to pre-Thatcher prices.
The North Sea is the North Belgian Sea. Spain is Summer Belgium, with its Mediterranean coastline now dubbed Costa del Belges. As if they need any more coastline. Greedy Belgians!
This future map of Europe was leaked to me by Sarah Ratayczak, who is partially of Belgian descent. “I saw the map attached on the door of a Poli Sci professor’s office when I was an undergrad at Wisconsin. I asked for a copy – its Belgocentric view of the world appealed to me because my mom’s family is from Belgium (long long ago).”
(1) Brussels is a separate region, enclaved within Flanders; nevertheless, it is also the capital of the Flemish region. A surreal situation, but not entirely unique. There are many instances around the world of cities administering territories of which they are not a part. A remarkable example is Chandigarh, in India. This planned city – designed by Le Corbusier – is a Union territory, directly ruled from the Indian capital Delhi. It is also the capital of not just one, but two states, Punjab and Haryana, without being part of either.
(2) Only Iraq (58 km), Togo (56 km), Slovenia (47 km), DR Congo (37 km), Jordan (26 km) and Bosnia and Herzegovina (20 km) have even less of a coastline.
“True” borders are imposed, often arbitrarily, by political entities. During their reign as world power, the British simply carved up the world in their interest without any regard for how economies were organized or people actually lived. Look at the problems those national boundaries ended up causing throughout the Middle East. But so many of cities in that region—Damascus, Baghdad, Jerusalem—have stood for millennia. In the earliest forms of civilization, borders shaped the economic unity of a city, providing community and protection, while in the modern era, technology has made cities less constrained by boundaries.
The artificiality of ‘real borders’
The rise of megaregions reveals the limits of “real borders” in our own time. The map below is based on my research with Tim Gulden and Charlotta Mellander, which uses satellite images of the world at night to identify megaregions as contiguous lighted areas. These lighted areas cross state and often national borders.
Gentrifiers actively rename neighborhoods and redefine their borders, creating whole new spaces that reflect the divides of class and race.
In the United States, for example the Bos-Wash Corridor runs across the Northeast from Massachusetts to Virginia; Chi-Pitts spans Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, Pittsburgh, and more, and Char-lanta crosses Georgia, North and South Carolina and parts of Kentucky and Tennessee.
Three other North American megaregions cut across national borders. Tor-Buff-Chester, where I live, spans the U.S. and Canada, as does Cascadia in the Pacific Northwest. So-Cal crosses the Mexican border and includes Tijuana. All of these megaregions are integrated economic clusters that defy the imposition of national borders.
The way that political borders contradict and clash with economic clusters comes through in even sharper relief when we look at the megaregions of Europe.
The mega of Amsterdam-Brussels-Antwerp crosses through the Netherlands and Belgium; Barcelona-Lyon runs up the coasts of Spain and France; Vienna-Budapest includes parts of Poland, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia in addition to Austria and Hungary.
Or we can look to the Middle East, where political tension and conflict has long limited the potential of the sprawling Tel Aviv-Amman-Beirut megaregion. That’s an area that we found produced about the same economic output as New Zealand.
The reality of imaginary borders
As unbound by national or state borders as regional economies might be, there are also the invisible—but in many ways very real—boundaries that exist inside our cities and metro areas. These phantom walls that separate rich and poor neighborhoods are stubbornly persistent, as can be seen in the maps of class-based urban divides we generated for my Divided Cities series for CityLab.
Of course, these geographic divides and segregation also reflect the boundaries that stem from things like the redlining of neighborhoods by banks, which helped create the enduring class and racial divides in American cities.
The power of such invisible borders to divide can be seen in the way gentrification splits apart and defines neighborhoods. Gentrifiers actively rename neighborhoods and redefine their borders, creating whole new spaces that reflect the divides of class and race.
The world we live in may be defined by borders, but the real ones are often not as powerful as some would like us to believe. It’s the invisible borders that can divide us more than we think.
This article first published by GR in November 2006 is of particular relevance to an understanding of the ongoing process of destabilization and political fragmentation of Iraq, Syria and Yemen. Washington’s strategy consists in breaking up Syria and Iraq.
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“Hegemony is as old as Mankind…” -Zbigniew Brzezinski, former U.S. National Security Advisor
The term “New Middle East” was introduced to the world in June 2006 in Tel Aviv by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (who was credited by the Western media for coining the term) in replacement of the older and more imposing term, the “Greater Middle East.”
This shift in foreign policy phraseology coincided with the inauguration of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) Oil Terminal in the Eastern Mediterranean. The term and conceptualization of the “New Middle East,” was subsequently heralded by the U.S. Secretary of State and the Israeli Prime Minister at the height of the Anglo-American sponsored Israeli siege of Lebanon. Prime Minister Olmert and Secretary Rice had informed the international media that a project for a “New Middle East” was being launched from Lebanon.
This announcement was a confirmation of an Anglo-American-Israeli “military roadmap” in the Middle East. This project, which has been in the planning stages for several years, consists in creating an arc of instability, chaos, and violence extending from Lebanon, Palestine, and Syria to Iraq, the Persian Gulf, Iran, and the borders of NATO-garrisoned Afghanistan.
The “New Middle East” project was introduced publicly by Washington and Tel Aviv with the expectation that Lebanon would be the pressure point for realigning the whole Middle East and thereby unleashing the forces of “constructive chaos.” This “constructive chaos” –which generates conditions of violence and warfare throughout the region– would in turn be used so that the United States, Britain, and Israel could redraw the map of the Middle East in accordance with their geo-strategic needs and objectives.
The GOP scored 33 more seats in the House this election even though Democrats earned a million more votes in House races. Professor Jeremy Mayer says gerrymandering distorts democracy. (The Fold/The Washington Post)
In his State of the Union speech, President Obama called on lawmakers and the public to take a number of steps “to change the system to reflect our better selves” for “a better politics.” The top item on that list was to end partisan gerrymandering: “we have to end the practice of drawing our congressional districts so that politicians can pick their voters, and not the other way around,” Obama said.
In most states, state legislatures draw the district boundaries that determine how many delegates the state sends to the U.S. Congress, as well as the general partisan make-up of that delegation. State legislatures are partisan beasts, and if one party is in control of the process they can draw boundaries to give themselves a numeric advantage over their opponents in Congress. This process is called gerrymandering.
The process of re-drawing district lines to give an advantage to one party over another is called “gerrymandering”. Here’s how it works. (Daron Taylor/The Washington Post)
But a fundamental problem with district-drawing still remains: as long as humans are drawing the lines, there’s a danger of bias and self-interest to creep into the process. There is another way, however: we could simply let computers do the drawing for us.
To see what this looks like in practice, compare this map of our current congressional districts (top) with one we stitched together from Olson’s output (bottom).
Big difference, isn’t it? You can check out a larger version of the compacted map here. Rather than a confusing snarl of interlocked districts, you have neat, trim boundaries that make intuitive sense. Here are some individual state comparisons I made back in 2014 that let you see some more of the detail:.
The state conservatives love to hate is beginning to reciprocate the feeling. Photo: YesCalifornia
Like the talk of secession in conservative southern states after Barack Obama became president, the idea of a separate California Republic builds on long-standing separatist feelings amplified by a momentous national election. Since Donald Trump became president while securing less than a third of the vote in California, the Yes California campaign — a.k.a. Calexit — has gotten a lot of attention and perhaps even some momentum in getting an initial measure placed on the 2018 general election ballot. An estimated 7,000 volunteers have begun amassing the 585,407 signatures necessary to place a constitutional amendment on the 2018 ballot deleting the state’s adherence to the United States and authorizing a 2019 referendum on independence.
Every state has one governor and two senators, but, in almost every other way, each state’s human geography is different, often wildly so. New Jersey has 15 times more people than Wyoming, despite being one-tenth its size. You can divide the island of Manhattan in two and the top half would be more populous than North Dakota, the bottom half more populous than South Dakota.
Most state borders were drawn centuries ago, long before the country was fully settled, and often the lines were drawn somewhat arbitrarily, to coincide with topography or latitude and longitude lines that today have little to do with population numbers. I wanted to know what the country might look like if we threw out all of the East’s ancient squiggles and the West’s rigid squares, and reconstituted the country as a union of states of equal population. Maybe it’s because I grew up in New Hampshire, one of the nation’s smallest states geographically and population-wise, but I’ve always been intrigued by the idea that we might find a way to even things out.
This is easier said than done. I started with a relatively straightforward approach to evening up the numbers: splitting America into just two states of equal population. Using the 2010 decennial census as my data source, I drew the map below. Each region has approximately 154,374,000 residents and no existing census tract is split in two.
Across the planet, 2016 witnessed a dramatic rise of new, rightward-leaning political movements, challenging existing orders — and raising potentially serious challenges for cities. Now the electoral changes have begun to pose stark dilemmas for urbanists in many world cities.
The background for my interview with Katz was a clear political fact: In two major elections — Britain’s “Brexit” vote, as well as Donald Trump’s victory in the U. S. presidential election — the voters in the major cities found themselves on the losing side, often by overwhelming margins. In fact, Katz is now working on a new publication, with long-time urban expert Jeremy Nowak, on what cities can and should do to protect their interests in the age of Trump.
The trend may just be warming up. In lands across the globe, there appears to be a tide of rising right-wing parties ready to take on political establishments. Though they differ widely in their ideological hues, most exhibit a distinctly anti-urban tenor. They include the Alternative for Germany, the National Front in France, the Five Star Movement in Italy and Britain’s UK Independence Party.
Voter discontent isn’t limited to Europe. A May 2016 presidential election in the Philippines was won by Rodrigo Duterte, an authoritarian populist who promised the execution of thousands of drug dealers — a murderous pledge that is not only being fulfilled but also catching many innocents in its crossfire.
In Brazil, historically a Latin American leader in taking steps to bring millions out of poverty, there’s now an ultra-conservative, all-male national cabinet that’s moved to freeze public expenditures for 20 years. Leadership in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo both veered rightward in 2016 municipal elections. In Rio, retiring Mayor Eduardo Paes, a centrist who served as president of the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, was replaced by Marcelo Crivella, a conservative senator who is affiliated with an influential megachurch. Overall, the Worker’s Party of the impeached former president Dilma Rousseff lost 60 percent of the contests for control of Brazil’s municipalities.
While national situations differ, two themes seem to underlie many of the new political movements. One is resentment on the part of working-class and rural voters who believe their interests have been neglected, even as urban elites have prospered over recent decades. A second is hostility toward immigrants, especially Muslims — an issue centrist parties have addressed only reluctantly, yet clearly an echo of fierce enmity toward Jews in the Europe of the 1930s.
Reflective of the radical shift, there’s now a distinct possibility that the European Union itself could be in peril if its defenders are defeated in major French and German elections this year.
These trends emerge, ironically, at the very moment that voices such as that of American scholar Benjamin Barber are rising in favor of a world “Parliament of Mayors” that could elevate local powers and in many respects bypass nation-state governments entirely.
The resentments of voters vary by world region. In the United States, for example, the severest economic loss and voter revolt has come in rural areas and small towns and cities with stagnant or very slowly growing economies, including many reliant on a single industry. Meanwhile, large U. S. cities and metropolitan regions have tended to fare much better. In Europe, by contrast, the resentment appears rooted more in emerging fears from a surge in terrorism.
Responses will vary
Katz sees cities as powerful antidotes to the winds of globalization — although the responses from them will differ. In Great Britain, a nation with very few elected mayors, most authority is centralized. That will make it harder for local governments to respond quickly to their own challenges, as opposed to the United States, where local rule — and citizen power — is far greater.
For example, local voters in the U. S.approved $200 billion for local transportation projects on the same day Trump’s Republican Party swept to victory on the national and state levels. And if federal taxes are cut under Republican rule, local taxes will almost surely be proposed — to pay for schools, transit, construction and other pressing needs.
Another major U. S. asset, Katz insists, is on the immigration front — the country’s history “as a more integrated nation” puts it in a stronger position than Europe, where “assimilation is an almost existential challenge.” Plus, he adds, the United States “is used to minorities becoming majorities.” For example, Irish Catholics, once scorned by entrenched Protestant majorities in New England, eventually saw one of their own elected president in John F. Kennedy.
Katz suggests the time is ripe across the world “to invent the 21st-century city.” City agencies are often organized in Balkanized silos, at a time when problem-solving requires multidisciplinary solutions to tackle problems such as housing, transport and land use together. “Economies are so advanced — but governments are still narrowly drawn,” he notes. “The compelling need is for cities to reinvent their governance.”
It’s particularly important, Katz suggests, that the political and economic institutions within metropolitan areas coordinate their efforts to develop advanced economies that can thrive in a competitive global environment.
Katz cites models such as Copenhagen, which pledges to be the world’s first carbon-neutral capital by 2025. Copenhagen is innovating in clean, renewable energy at the metropolitan and neighborhood scale, and building a pattern of mixed-use, mixed-income neighborhoods where biking and transit are the easiest ways to get around. Meanwhile, the city is building an educated workforce with deep technical knowledge. The Copenhagen City and Port Corporation — publicly owned but privately managed — is using the value of publicly owned land to spur the regeneration of large districts, like one known as North Harbour, while providing revenues to finance new transit infrastructure for the entire city.
As a U. S. model, Katz notes the Denver region, where cooperation between the city and its suburbs has raised capital for infrastructure, arts and culture, and downtown revitalization. In 2004, the region voted for an innovative regional transportation plan, FasTracks, financed in large part by a multijurisdictional ballot referendum approving one of the biggest sales-tax increases the region had ever seen. Katz says healthy regions like Denver develop deep partnerships — among government, business, philanthropy, media and higher education — that will help them to form strong strategies to remain nationally and globally competitive.
Room for action
Major urban regions worldwide need to keep learning from each others’ successes, Katz suggests. In the United States, mayors can act creatively, reaching out for alliances with business, labor and nonprofit organizations. But their authority is often limited, with power over essential services like water, housing, seaports and airports controlled by separate public authorities. The pattern poses obstacles in bringing together the varied resources — capital, land, infrastructure and human resource development — to develop coordinated strategies that will lead to more efficient and responsive services and effective growth.
In many countries outside the United States, city governments may be strong but operate more “solo” — exercising their official powers but without a history or culture of engaging the broad range of non-governmental players that could enrich their alliances and outreach.
In Europe, the refugee crisis is prompting the growth of new civic institutions and corporate strategies that innovate on integration strategies. In Hamburg, for example, a new nonprofit called Hanseatic Help set up the largest clothing storage and redistribution system in the city, and developed an app that brings together volunteers and refugees. In Stockholm, LinkedIn has created a platform called Welcome Talent to give every refugee a profile that identifies his or her workplace qualifications and accelerates attachment to the labor market.
Katz’s bottom line: In an increasingly contentious political world, cities should seek ways to expand their scope and effectiveness on every front, from business development to clean streets, and climate protection to advanced educational opportunities. And to look globally, past the ideologically preoccupied national governments, for new models and approaches.
Katz sees the rise of a “New Localism” where “cities become the vanguard of problem solving and social progress in the world, fueled by new norms of growth, governance and finance, and powerful public, private and civic networks.”
How has activism in Spain produced new political platforms that are victorious in municipal elections? Are there stories, lessons, methods or tools that can be shared or translated to other contexts? How might these support the growing movement in France?
CommonsPolis — a civil society initiative to create dialogue between progressive municipalist movements and city governments, and European citizens — held an encounter described as “a common space for exchange; cities in transition and citizen struggles” in Paris on November 24, 2016, at the offices of the Charles Léopold Mayer Foundation (FPH) and with the collaboration of the Utopia Movement. Spanish activists from a variety of regions were invited to share with their French counterparts their recent experiences of entering the municipal public administrations, and their efforts to make the political process more participatory and inclusive for citizens. The event was held in Spanish (Castellano) and French, with simultaneous interpretation. I went along with Stacco Troncoso as observers from the P2P Foundation. We were invited to attend, listen, and share our P2P/Commons perspective about the coming political landscape.
The Spanish context was outlined in a handout offered at the event, which described the most significant breakthroughs of the last two years (2015-16). In May 2015, the new citizens’ coalitions which had emerged from the street-level movements were successful in a number of large municipal elections. The path of these citizens’ coalitions traces back to reactions against the failures of Spain’s post-Transition bipartisanism, and their victories indicate a shift in mindset, culture, and power. These new, municipalist “non-parties” are outgrowths of the 15Mindignado movement and “las mareas” (tides), citizens’ initiatives around housing, health, education, culture and urban ecology. They build on prior political traditions of self-management and governance, while also drawing influences from the de-growth, ecology and free/libre movements and applying mindful use of technology and media.
The event began with a brief introduction by Vladimir Ugarte, who described Commonspolis as a mixture of personal and professional developments. Sergi Escribano, originally from Spain, was living in France and observing the tremendous changes shaking up Spanish civil, and political, society. Meanwhile Vlad, originally from Uruguay, brought a Latin American perspective on the political environmental and cultural crisis worldwide. As they witnessed the local governance initiatives taking shape under a municipalist ethic in Spain, they decided to do something about it — but instead of writing a grand manifesto, they would first proceed by listening. This event was created in support of that intention, and to explore the question of how such a shift would scale or transfer to another context – how can the municipal experiences of Spanish activists help inform the next steps elsewhere, in France for example?
From bipartisanism to municipalism: Spain’s Political Landscape
We spent the day together in a clean, modern room with light wooden paneling and lots of windows facing an interior courtyard at the FPH offices. The atmosphere was friendly and familiar, and a number of people had either previously met or corresponded, so the morning started with upbeat conversation and coffee. The organizers called us to sit in a circle to begin, and for the next several hours, the story of the municipal victories in Spain unfolded.
Members ofBarcelona en Comú, Marea Atlántica and València en Comústarted by sharing their perspectives on what provoked the crisis and its reactions in Spain, and the relationships and patterns that they see emerging among the resulting different movements and parties.
A brief look at Spain’s most recent forty years set the context for the stories that would follow. The post-Franco years were marked by the rise and fall of Spanish bipartisanism. The power structures of the dictatorship were largely preserved in one of the two dominant political parties, Partido Popular or the People’s Party (PP), supported by old-guard power players and the Catholic church. Meanwhile, the more moderate and steadily center-leaning Partido Socialista Obrera Español (PSOE), the Socialist Worker’s Party, swiftly abandoned Marxism in the late 70s. In the early 2000s, Spain adopted the Euro with great expectations but, after a decade of speculative action, the quality of day to day life began to deteriorate. Prices went up, but salaries stayed flat. While neither party was solely to blame, neither was innocent. Corruption became more prevalent and obvious. Unprecedented construction speculation culminated in the devastating housing bubble, triggering “the crisis” marked by rising incidences of mortgage foreclosure and eviction, and rampant unemployment.
As we know, this political/economic crisis provoked a widespread activist reaction in Spain, beginning in 2011 with the eruption of the 15-M movement. Five years later, a large part of this activism has since moved indoors from the streets and squares to government posts, but this did not come easily. Power and influence struggles persist, both internally among activists with different missions, and as a by-product of the constraints felt in being a minority power. A relatively low number of seats in parliament poses an obvious disadvantage for those activists now working within government. Progress is often hamstrung by the institutional rigidity of government structures, not to say the baroque quality of Spanish law.
So, how did these activists manage to grab the power needed to break the bipartisan stranglehold? In 2014, 5 Members of European Parliament (MEPs) fromPodemoswere elected, evidence of a strong resistance to bipartisanism. The kind of changes Podemos triggered started on a local scale with municipal platforms, creating networks for every city to work for local change. These platforms are the “how”, but not the “who”, of change; it’s important to remember that any one party, Podemos included, is a part of the platform, and not the whole.
L-R: Vladimir Ugarte (Empodera), Laura Roth (BCN en Comú), Rafa Juan (València en Comú), Sergi Escribano (Empodera), Neus Fàbregas (València en Comú), Daniel Rodríguez (Marea Atlántica), Marcelo Expósito (BCN en Comú), Diego Jimenez (Marea Atlántica). See all participants here.
On the practical level, many people who felt indignation in response to the crisis indeed becameindignadas, activists not just in their own lives but also in electoral politics.“Las Mareas”, or the “tides”, are citizen-activist groups formed throughout Spain after 15M, each acting in a specific sector and often identified by color (green for education, white for health, etc.). Mainly, they help create or safeguard access to different public services hit by austerity policies. La Marea Atlántica, formed in 2014 in A Coruña, Galicia, was formed with another goal in sight. Building on a long tradition of local leftist politics, La Marea Atlántica intended to develop a participative municipal administration. They collected 2,500 signatures towards presenting candidates for city council and also mayor, the latter of which they won in the 2015 elections. There is a special cultural significance in this win: the mayor, Xulio Ferreiro, is the first in office who speaks the local language (Gallego).
As they describe themselves, La Marea Atlántica has several currents. They incorporate the ideals of 15M, but for the platform to be successful, they stress that everyone involved must work together. For example, the platform should not be considered as a projection of Podemos in particular, there are a number of parties represented. It’s a political space where many come together, what they call a “political proposal”.
Marea Atlántica’s online instruments have been created to enable all types of citizens’ participation. “Mareas abiertas” (open tides) is a key element: there are no party-imposed quotas, any individual can participate. The campaigns are completely self-financed. And they continue to develop more participatory, inclusive projects, such asCo-Lab. The website describes Co-Lab as “a recent social innovation project with a mission to improve quality of life for people and have a more egalitarian citizenship, through mechanisms of collaborative, open and re-usable knowledge production.”
But the truth is, they sometimes have difficulties in keeping it all up. The daily management is hard work, and it doesn’t sustain itself without a lot of input. Maintaining a high level of interest and engagement in people sometimes becomes challenging in the flow of action between activism and institutions, even when the processes are open and participatory.
Why have a such wide range and high number of people in Spain have turned to activism? Not long ago, many people were working hard just to pay the mortgage, only to see their job security and financial stability slip away. People started going “underwater” on their mortgages, and the ugly spectacle of police-enforced home evictions proved to be too much to bear without resistance by those affected and their friends, neighbors and communities. 2009 saw the beginning of thePlataforma de Afectados por la Hipotecaor (PAH) — Platform for People Affected by Mortgages — in Barcelona. Through civil disobedience and direct action, people take part in opposing evictions, often putting themselves physically between law enforcement and homeowners— the banks take the property, but the cops take the people.
PAH has successfully prevented well over one thousand such evictions. One of their founding members, Ada Colau, became a spokesperson ofBarcelona en Comú, and more recently was elected the mayor of Barcelona. Where 15M once had people in the streets and squares chanting “no nos representa”— “they don’t represent us” — now, in Ada Colau, they have a mayor who emerged from the movement itself. The “en Comú” movements in other cities including València are municipal platforms that have gathered a good deal of public interest and support. From the en comú movements in these two cities, Barcelona and Valencia, many reflections and indeed, even warnings were shared.
En Comú in València is a platform of the streets, now in the transition to electoral politics and campaigns. With its roots in street assemblies, food sovereignty campaigns and the student and housing movements, en Comú identified a shift: people moved toward thinking in terms of “ours”, rather than “mine”. They’ve also crowdfunded their own “improvised” campaign and gained 33 seats in the local parliament. But being in the minority, like La Marea, they’ve got a vertiginous climb ahead. With the political will to survive, the members of VEC stress that it’s worth the trouble of persisting. Although the process is full of problems, they’re committed to keeping on, moving forward, not losing hope. This is the moment for reality checks but also going back to the roots of the organization, to recuperate what people have in common while also confronting an administration that mainly seeks to take care of itself.
Barcelona en Comú are often asked to tell their story, and they do so “warts and all”, with all of the problems and challenges along with the successes. Yes,they did win in the Barcelona elections, but with 11 seats (out of 41) in city assembly, it’s clearly not enough to govern a city; the change is local and limited, for the moment. While they may form part of the government, the ongoing question is how to be part of a government that doesn’t want you to make changes. So, within the small space between simple legislation and doing nothing at all, BeC is attempting to do something differentwith the many limits and problems at the government level.
Through their organization’s creation and continued evolution, they have come to understand that the change in political discourse has taken place on both the right and the left. Extensive changes are occurring in traditional politics. The left, however, seems to communicate in abstracts, which creates rather than solves problems at the local level. People do not want abstract terms, they wantconcrete solutions. This must be discussed, but not in the accepted, unquestioned, persistent ways. Results should come by treating concrete problems, being realistic, and going through phases at the local level, growing real participation among people. The PAH platform, for example, has been built step by step, acknowledging every little victory that adds up to something (previously) unimaginable. And finding the appreciation for the small steps is part of the change.
Keenly aware of the masculine style of typical political discourse, along with its implications, the movements in Spain have been working to feminize the discourse and encourage more and better participation. Bringing others into the platforms depends on something mentioned multiple times: an ethical code, designed for open participation and the encouragement of real politics with people creating their own platforms – implementing radical democracy. Participatory conversation creates political change, and the feminization of politics is not only about the political work itself, it also means a change of style.
But these municipal platforms are not solely designed for local citizens; it was made clear, they must be part of a multi-level structure capable of operating at the national, and even transnational, levels. To make this happen, the municipal platforms must coordinate among themselves and beyond. They need to present viable political alternatives that channel the rising resistance to recent right-populist political developments such as Brexit and the election of Trump.
Crucially, each of these new municipalist coalitions has based their work on their“codigo etico”, the ethical codewhichshapes everything they do in the platforms, participation in institutions. This ethical code is developed from existing experiences, and acts as both the glue and the attractor for participants. Its main principles are:
No revolving doors (no cycling through public/private positions)
Open primaries — no party quotas, and open to anyone
Voluntary/citizen self-financing, and rejection of institutional or bank financing
Caveats and cautions were offered about the problems found in making municipal change. Hard limits, even something like a “glass ceiling”, were described. Some of this is surely due to the experimental nature of this new institutional style grating against the very durable, quintessentially neoliberal, crisis produced by the established political powers. Opposition is not easy, and neither have been these first moves from the streets into municipal chambers. They said it again and again: for all the progress made in Spain, there’s no formula for entering these institutions.
Winning is not the same as gaining power; to gain effective power takes a very empowered citizenship, and citizens are starved of power. Broadening citizen participation is obviously important, but this must be done within the local context, and will create something different in each location — so, again, “recipes” are impossible. While it’s true that the regime crisis has led to a growth in political and urban “lab” environments, making the leap into the municipal government is not simple, and successful attempts at change are slow and hard won. Even the new methodologies employed can cause problems.
Because of all this, thecodigo etico — code of ethics — was described as indispensable. New government is, as has been learned, not always an effective government, and political organizations can be prone to inter-faction disputes. Think inclusively — how might a single, immigrant mother of several children, for example, be encouraged or enabled to participate, and why? For a positive reception to some kind of marea social, or citizens’ tide movement, there must be real solutions and a clear path to participation or there will be no way out of the crisis.
With so much of what’s familiar and concrete being constructs of neoliberalism — business, management, government — the path towards reconstruction from the bottom is difficult, and more so with a repressive legislative architecture. On top of it all, there’s another difficulty. This hard, neoliberal Europe has also produced a rapidly rising, bottom-up, citizen-level force from the right which must be watched and considered closely.
But, what do the movements find when they ask the people what they want? The people are still outraged and anxious. They want assurances of security, to finally get out of the economic crisis. What happens when those who’ve moved into municipal government want rupture, but what the people want is restoration? People say they want to “go back to the way things were”, but not only is that impossible, things were not really so good — but memories are short. This is the key of the extreme right, this ideological message. What’s needed is more empathy.
In conclusion, those presenting from the various movements in Spain all shared that their processes have been a qualified nightmare at times, and that navigating through the crisis has been very hard. But at the heart there remains a source of hope and motivation– sí se puede.
Widening the Conversation
In several small, multi-lingual groups, we had some animated discussions about the enthusiasm, curiosity and doubts in reaction to the initial expositions. What clearly came across were ideas about promoting self-management, the need for exercising caution with the existing paternalism in society, and providing more visibility to self-management practices. People discussed encouraging social empowerment to correct, rather than tolerate, constant institutional blockages, as well as how to promote more social income and participatory budgeting.
Even with some notable differences in the French context, there is a clear need for municipal learning and “unlearning” within concrete, multi-scale, autonomous movements; a need to find ways to resolve the eventual failures, and to put forth proposals that people can use. Strengthening bottom-up narratives and nurturing inclusivity in political practices are fundamentals. Without this shift towards change that remains in service of the community, people will eventually lose confidence.
Instability fomented the change in the Spanish territory, and that original energy continued to provoke changes in the context of the social movements. A strong focus emerged, along with a greatly increased local participation. Investigations into the crisis — what caused it, how to address it — provided a springboard from which people began thinking and working collectively, always keeping those ethical codes in sight.
The trajectory of personal transformation can lead into a political one, and ideas turn to politics. But how would those in the French context follow the work done in the Spanish municipal arena? By introducing the virus of change into the institutions. Study the length of time before elections, and find a way to anticipate what will be needed, and communicate it. Work to avoid power struggles, and work to make those personal transformations integrate into the platforms. This includes feminization to induce noticeable differences in governance — it’s important to dismantle patriarchal constructs, i.e. the tendency for the loudest to be heard, and for the longest time. Oh, and another thing — resolve the tension between just talking to people about problems, and changing things so that communication becomes empowerment.
But what about the fact that people have long adopted completely neoliberal behaviour patterns, right from primary school — how is it possible to address these limitations?At this point,how many people outside of these specialized groups really know how to work in a participatory style anymore? The dialogue has been long lost, and must be recovered, including a change in values. The tension between power and counterpower has to be acknowledged, and differences between “collective” and “commons”, where the commons is a search for construction among people.
Later in the day, some more clues and tools came through from the activists from Spain in an additional round of group work, some more conceptual and some more concrete. Keeping up a good level of critique was cited as a key component, and to avoid forming “bubbles”. Sustainability, in the material sense, can mean using local and complementary currencies, or instigating more activities, rather than just talks — having more action take place in the communities (eg. garden cultivation and instructions). As far as inclusion, we need more work on “feminization”: get more women to participate, and change the grand-scale masculine logics and ideas for something more feminine, closer. Be inclusive of groups with fewer resources (eg, youth groups) and reach out to those former- or non-activists who feel excluded, cynical or disinterested. Make it all more open to the “others”, and work to maintain that level of inclusion.
Feminization, as it was described, can be a difficult, slow process of experimentation. Knowing this, it’s a good practice to create a protected environment for experimentation, and foster something slower but deeper. Create other forms of organization that are participatory from within the institutions: introduce techniques like speaking in turn, or request participants to give just one sentence, in quick rounds – things that encourage better participation. The goal is to break the usual tendencies for certain people to dominate and certain people to remain silent – time to shake up the comfort zone.
What about all the people who are used to just voting and dropping all the responsibility on the elected officials? And the question of enabling people’s capacities in the spirit of commons – how can this be done? With education, making every action more visible and creating spaces for discussion – actual, physical spaces. De-localize the decision-making within the platforms. Make proposals to the people, show them the ways to co-create communities using participatory principles, including codes of ethics. Someone could lead by example and propose a work group with specific rules and context, so everyone knows how to participate. Debate questions openly, eg. how to define the urban commons? Technical questions come up, and questions of tech, which is the means through which a large dominion of civic and political information is controlled. Think about how to make the technical solutions compatible with the political ones.
In the final afternoon discussions, there were several proposals following on the earlier dialogues. Why not hold the next European Commons Assembly in a “rebel” city, one undergoing commons-friendly changes, to see more potentially concrete changes and proposals in action. And with the EU elections coming in 2019, more work needs to be done within the commons political network, focusing on “free, fair, sustainable” principles with visible alliances around the different commons – knowledge, social justice, ecology, etc. It’s time to open some common spaces for action where people can learn to make, do and live differently, and discover how to exchange experiences around common development and management (“gestion en común”).
Change-making in France: a reaction
The question that was opened for exploration at the end of the day: exactly what aspects of the citizens’ platforms in Spain might be portable to France? Although it’s understood that the process and results are still in flux, there is ample space for change anda strong desire to experiment with what can be replicated at different scales. So, how to mobilize now – what kinds of tips and tricks might be viable in the French sociopolitical landscape?
In 2014, Spanish activists said “let’s take the city” – a seemingly impossible challenge. One year later, municipal elections were won by Ahora Madrid, and en Comú in Barcelona and València – and although these new parties and representatives may face hostility from inside, the spirit of“sí se puede”has been successfully validated and propagated. With a strong commons culture in France, the possibilities are wide open. How to organize and mobilize? The advice offered was: organize for what already exists, don’t over-politicize, keep to the needs of people in the communities, and work up from small steps.
While there are apparent cultural differences in the French and Spanish contexts, some form of “viral” idea sharing could promote a cultural change towards more widespread citizen engagement, particularly in municipal politics. In Spain, people organized in and from the public squares, where in France this kind of expanded organization may not yet have taken root fully — althoughNuit de bot certainly offers us a good view on how it could develop — but, that said, it was acknowledged that a movement has beenborn in France with roots in an economic crisis, even if different from that in Spain. For a young person, joining Uber is a lot cheaper and faster than obtaining a taxi license, but this easy entry could have a high cost in eventual precarity.
Conclusions. Where do we go from here?
All the municipalist players from the Spanish territory are working multi-scale (local, national, regional, and now in international dialogues). The coalitions are non-partisan, though inclusive of established political parties. They all want to end the isolation presently perceived at the city level, merging more towards an ideal of the “networked rebel cities”. Overall, the key point made for the French activists was the need to create and implement a common ethical code for participation. Meetings such as this one should obviously evolve to be more diverse and representative of the public at large, as the movements themselves are. As the meeting drew to a close, it was noted pretty bluntly– if we don’t get our shit together, the far right will, in terms of gathering massive support by addressing the concrete needs of people.
As commoners and activists concerned about caring for our neighbours and the environments which sustain us, the responsibility falls on all of us, beyond Spain, beyond France. We are the stewards of change, and this change needs to go beyond boundaries to engage real needs with viable, common-sense solutions. The community empowerment, network logics and feminization of politics displayed by municipalist platforms such as València en Comú, Marea Atlántica and Barcelona en Comú could inspire new bottom-up electoral coalitions in surprisingly different contexts. Let’s spread the word and show the world what happens when concerned citizens decide to take the power back.
Jim Wheeler represents Gardnerville, a little town of 5,600 people about a half-hour east of Lake Tahoe, in the Nevada Assembly. Last fall, he gained instant national notoriety when a video surfaced in which he said he would vote to support slavery if that’s what his constituents wanted. He was roundly criticized by media outlets both national and local, as well as leaders of his own party. Wheeler soon apologized.
But some of his other remarks on the tape triggered nearly as great a reaction, at least in Nevada. He suggested that Clark County in the southeast corner of the state—home to Las Vegas and 73 percent of Nevada’s entire population—should be split off from the state. “This is the biggest divide in the state, North and South,” Wheeler said. “Las Vegas wants everything, and they don’t care about the rurals.”
Ever since, legislators from southern Nevada have vowed to take revenge, strategizing about how they can get a larger share of state resources. It should be a snap. “Southern Nevada has had a majority of the legislators and now has a supermajority,” says Jon Ralston, a prominent commentator on Nevada politics. “If the delegation [could] stick together, they could get anything they want.”