It’s a fine spring Sunday in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and most people in this decidedly pious city in the heart of Amish country are at home or at church celebrating the Sabbath. Even the famous Central Market—with its traditionally dressed vendors, its German delicacies, its Muenster cheeses and cured meats —is closed.1
When you’re trying to create a populist political movement from scratch, however, you don’t get a lot of down time. And so Michelle Hines and her partner, Daniel Levin, are out knocking on doors and telling their neighbors about the new grassroots group in town.2
Hines, a young white woman who works a day job at a local laboratory, ascends the stoop of a gray stone row house and a middle-aged lady in a dressing gown and slippers answers the door.3
Hines introduces herself and then asks the crucial question: “What do you think of the political establishment?”4
“It sucks!” says the woman at the door, who gives her name as Judy and describes herself as a Republican who didn’t vote in the last election. “It ain’t good, I’ll put it that way.” The woman is open and garrulous, and Hines invites her to the next monthly meeting of the group she represents. It’s called Lancaster Stands Up.5
The organization, Hines explains, is a way for people who are sick of the status quo “to come together, to get plugged in.” It’s a polite and strategic description, but there’s plenty more to say.6
Founded in the wake of Trump’s victory and led by a 12-person leadership committee, Lancaster Stands Up aims to upend politics-as-usual in this central Pennsylvania city. It wants nothing less than to break the stranglehold of both the Democratic and Republican establishments here and replace them with a progressive multi-racial political force beholden to the people alone. And it is using the tools of long-haul grassroots activism—canvassing, vetting candidates, bird-dogging political foes, forming unlikely alliances, training leaders, convening meetings—to build its constituency.7
A crew of young lifelong Lancastrians, some of whom have been organizing together since high school, launched the group on their own, independent of any national organization, last November. Through huge rallies and intimate conversations and more, they are reminding neighbors like Judy that democracy is a practice that must be pursued constantly and in community. There are no off days. There are no off years. When civil society is at stake, it’s campaign time all the time.8
After describing her concerns about gentrification and the cost of a movie ticket, after lamenting the fact that “the rich keep getting richer and the poor keep getting poorer,” Judy, standing on her stoop under the springtime sun, shares her contact information and tells Hines that she’ll try to make the next meeting. She promises to tell her politically active daughter about Lancaster Stands Up, too.9
The advent of the Internet, the ICTs and the collective intelligence enabled by them point to the rise of a networked democracy that promises, among other things, the protagonism of the common citizen in relation to the State and to the distribution of power. In recent years, there have been a number of initiatives in this area that, somehow, advanced towards this goal, but the promise remains unanswered.
One reason may be the fact that, advocating for a leading role to the ordinary citizen and the distribution of power, one is severely threatening the interests of politicians, political parties and companies that have been benefiting from an autocratic and centralized paradigm for hundreds or maybe thousands of years. So, we are aware that the mission we have before us is one that will take some time and effort to be accomplished, as it is inscribed in the great transition we are all going through.
Believing in the digital culture statement that “technology is everywhere, the people is what matters” seems adequate to avoid the fetish of technology itself and the creation of solutions that do not realize the potential of a distributed network, responding to the challenge of consolidating autonomous collective action processes that would ultimately lead to the distribution of power.
Still, in our perspective, the social participation ecosystem as a whole is far from delivering initiatives that significantly advance into the construction of this networked democracy. In this post, some of the lessons learned in recent years are presented to help us understand the complexity of obtaining some of the necessary elements for this answer: scale without intermediation, financial sustainability for ICD from a hard to measure value created, debate quality without exclusion, permanent changes in state institutions and building commons.
The answer to the above issues seems to reside between softwares’ interaction architectures, initiatives’ business models and projects’ impact and the likelihood of social participation technology ecosystem initiatives to engage in collective impact. Below are some of our latter reflections. We hope that you enjoy and that our learnings will help you work better and make the promise to come true.
1) Audience success is good for democracy?
The widespread use of social media platforms brought the promise of horizontal communication from many to many and the possibility of mobilization without media control. Groups organized around communications and campaigning tools would be able to spread their messages, becoming strong actors to influence the course of action towards their interests.
This promise has given rise to initiatives that select ‘relevant’ agendas through content curation to be offered to the ordinary citizens, producing incidence masses that act via automated systems (e-mail, phone calls or social media publications) to urge decision makers to act towards these initiatives intermediaries’ interests. Together with leading social media algorithms, this strategy only strengthens the logic of audience competition, increasing the chances of the chosen agendas to get attention and be adopted by decision makers.
The above-mentioned initiatives, almost always based on proprietary software and nontransparent algorithms, have shown to be effective at putting messages through targeted audiences, sometimes achieving positive political results and, most often, producing promising return on advertising investment. Products’ campaigns (political or non-political) are benefiting from new and effective tools to influence the public, allowing new combinations of feelings and emotions with products and messages. On the other hand, those tools are definitely not suited for the political debate. For this purpose, the strategy must include interaction architectures and algorithms that value cultural and democratic dynamics, are transparent and efficient in identifying noise and establishing minimum consensus.
That is why we keep wondering: where will this audience success lead us in the long run? Must we conform to a refashioned logic, able to mobilize ordinary citizens through impactful messages, as the next step towards a networked democracy?
Our answer is no and, therefore, we have been working on a more adequate change theory to respond to common citizen protagonism and distribution of power, stimulating autonomous collective action to surpass the limits of audience oriented social participation and enabling arrangements that strengthen each one willing to participate in the decisions on the common good. We will talk about this in the end of this post.
2) Qualifying the debate leads to exclusion?
As summarized in the previous section, this issue is not new. Several organizations, governments and open source communities have been developing and using applications based on interaction architectures and algorithms that foster informed and autonomous debate between different ideas. Some examples are: Liquid Feedback (Pirate Party), collaborative public consultations based on Dialoga and Delibera (Marco Civil da Internet, Pensando o Direito, Participa.br), Cidade Democrática (contests of ideas, Webcidadania Xingu), Decide Madrid (Cónsul), Decidim Barcelona(Dedicim), DemocracIT (Greece). Our close analysis of those initiatives shows that there is a clear desire of governmental and civil society organizations to offer alternatives for democratic dialogue based on the collective intelligence and network intelligence, but these experiences have been having difficulty in scaling or generating the desired impact.
Why, to date were these initiatives unable to scale or impact? Our opinion is that it is because of the engagement limit represented by architectures that required the user-activist to have cognitive resources, time, motivation and training to be able to use these platforms properly. In other words, the unfitted way these solutions were developed requires empowered citizens — a social ‘category’ that has grown very slowly in times when politics and consumer markets still operate in the old autocratic logic of media and political power centralization. These citizens must be able to jump on a discussion with resources and willingness to hold long conversations, often requiring a lot of prior knowledge that are not widely distributed in society. It’s possible to say that we are reaching a kind of “participation elite”, ie people who already have pre-disposition and time to participate.
Moreover, even for those who have mobilized themselves to participate in the traditional tree process, the incentives (proposals/ discussions resulting on improvements in their lives) are far from encouraging: often there is no clear decision-making process that takes advantage of all that information made available by the participants leading participants to feel disempowered. Some examples of tree or mixed mode architectures that present clearer processes of deliberation (Loomio, Cidade Democrática, Decide Madrid, Application of Brazilian Youth Conference, Liquid Feedbackor even the proprietary ConsiderIT) do so at the cost of significant increase to the process complexity, setting stages, rules and obligations which ultimately reduce the engagement potential, despite of the increased effectiveness for those who pass the barrier.
To respond to this barrier that prevents more people to participate, we believe that the design of collective deliberation should take into consideration the pedagogical aspect of interaction. A good example of digital tool with minimalistic and dynamic interface is the one of collective deliberation that we will name here as ‘crowdsourced discussion’ architectures — able to gradually increase the amount of energy that participants need to offer at every step of the engagement process. These kind of applications are able to gather data from different ways in which people participate, almost no information is lost and all is put to good use in the final result.
This research of architectures that allow mass participation in a pedagogical way and facilitate the generation of autonomous collective action motivated us to choose the Pol.is open source software for the challenges of collective deliberation. In the current state, this application can provide a simple interaction architecture and uses advanced machine learning algorithms to foster the creation of groups of people based on how they participate in the proposals. Though Pol.is is very good at identifying these affinity groups, currently it only shows this information and do not progress towards helping these people to organize around autonomous collective action. In our opinion, there are improvements to be made in the application precisely to carry out this type of action.
Media-Lab Prado (Madrid, Spain) selected our proposal for a prototype that incorporates the feature mentioned above in the call for Collective Intelligence for Democracy to be developed together with the creators and main developers of this community in November 2016.
3) Autonomous collective action is enough to change policies?
In the previous reflections we have presented some of the pitfalls of opting for interaction algorithms and architectures that bet on audience as a mean to scale and that operate through events, maintaining broadcast standards, reinforcing a passive form of participation, with strong intermediation structures, maintaining the dominant political culture and stimulating content and agenda consumption instead of autonomous collective action.
To build an effective networked democracy, we must be able to encourage autonomous collective actions as the ones that express singular interests and hyperlocal contexts, stimulating the role of agenda promoter that each one can perform. In the current context, however, there are few chances for these proposals to be highlighted and outreach because they end up being overwhelmed by strong intermediation structures or, also, they do not prevail against evidence brought by social indicators and the inescapable finitude of resources.
So, besides being limited by the small audience provided only by the singularly qualified citizens, proposals created through autonomous processes have an additional risk to be taken off from the agenda setting process as they are the expression of interests of small groups with little chances of being highlighted in the deliberation, planning and prioritizing processes of political institutions. Thus it seems necessary to have some kind of ‘magnet’ for societal agendas arising from autonomous collective action to adhere to State agendas for which there are available public resources (public budget) and which respond to the most critical demands (weak social indicators). When the autonomous collective action consider these two diagnoses in its strategy, it increases the likelihood of its actions to have greater impact and it also leads the State to better plan and execute the public budget and policies in the areas where it is most needed.
To our knowledge, to date, there are no social participation processes implemented by the State or civil society taking into account such evidences. That could be one of the reasons why social participation initiatives have been lacking impact. Designing participatory processes to foster autonomous collective action around the intersection between popular needs/ desires, existing public resources and deficient social indicators seem to be the way to address this problem. This also provides a strong incentive for participants to engage around proposals that, besides of being critical, have better chances of being implemented.
For this to happen, that is, for the autonomous processes of participation to join (magnet) the issues where there is public funds (and also private as far as there are records of the availability of companies and private foundations resources for public affairs) and weak social indicators, we argue towards the articulation of current social participation initiatives with initiatives that map public resources and social indicators (e.g. IPS Amazônia) and present them through data visualization and open data. Thus, open and accessible provision of information on public resources and social indicators will increase the effectiveness of autonomous collective social participation actions.
4) Are society and State ready for joint efforts to build common digital resources?
Another barrier for the common citizen to play a protagonist role and the distribution of power is the dispute between public and societal parties to command the way through which social participation should occur, a matter that can be translated as: who decides which process and application will be adopted. And the quality and effectiveness of the process, as said before, depend on the characteristics (architecture, implicit process and features) of the applications used.
We believe that a plausible way out of this impasse is to join efforts from State and civil society to build common digital resources, with the State participating by adherence to the work of open source software development communities. This has happened to a part of the governmental social participation policies in Brazil, over the last 7 years, benefiting from the efforts invested by Brazilian civil society to build technologies for collaborative social participation on the Internet.
The first of these experiences took place in Marco Civil da Internet consultation that had its technology based on the work of an open source community from digital culture agenda, led by the Ministry of Culture. As an extension of this experience, a number of other public consultations used the same technology or articulated other open source communities developing collective deliberation technologies. This was the case of Participa.br and Pensando o Direito who adhered to at least three different open source communities: Noosfero, Delibera (WordPress) and Allourideas (Pairwise). The common trace of these initiatives is that they were all based on the use and adherence to open source software development communities who had already been working on the creation of innovative technologies for collective deliberation.
Beyond bringing innovative technology into the governmental processes, State’s relationship with those open source communities was also an opportunity for State and society to work together in the construction of shared common digital resources. We believe that the knowledge to build and maintain relationships with open source communities and manage the development and use of software as a common good is a capacity for the State to acquire and incorporate into its formal processes.
This would be a way for the State to develop public policies from the standpoint of the common goods (technologies/ digital resources), ensuring State’s sovereignty (often dependent on isolated processes and proprietary technologies) and, at the same time, preserving the autonomy of society. These institutional changes would significantly reduce the information asymmetry and produce sustainable and democratic policies’ designs. We see this as a clear way of building the bridge to a networked democracy.
In this post we have tried to present a synthesis of our recent reflections on the limits faced by the social participation technologies ecosystem. We have analyzed event based advocacy models and other models of qualified deliberation in terms of advantages and disadvantages of each kind. We have put both models on stage starting from a discussion that has, as the background, the promise of achieving a networked democracy that enables autonomous collective actions and distributes power.
Designing engagement processes aiming at the building of a networked democracy seems like the most promising strategy to be taken on days strongly marked by transitions in politics, economy, climate, health, education and other systems that governs our lives. In our perspective, these engagement processes will derive from open source commons arrangements capable of building crowdsourced and easy to use interaction architectures, connected with state resources mapping and public indicators dataviz solutions.
This is a fairly good description of Instituto Cidade Democrática’s change theory, built from our project’s experience in the recent years. This is the result of a wide-ranging reflection, motivated by the burden of perceiving the social participation technologies ecosystem to have low capacity to scale and impact towards a networked democracy. This theory was the basis for the shaping of our next products and prototypes, and sharing it with all of you who follow us and other stakeholders as an invitation to jointly address the challenges posed here, is a contribution that we are proud to offer to the our field of work. We hope that you enjoy it and we encourage you to share your thoughts with us.
Today’s challenges, from the flight from war-refugees to the management of the commons, and the environmental crisis, are being tackled at the local level from some City Councils across Europe. Some cities are proving to be spaces with an outstanding capacity to confront and face reality with reachable solutions.
While the European Commission is set soon to examine Poland’s response to its recommendation of December 2016, regarding the rule of law in this Member State, a number of NGOs have submitted an open letter to the European Commission demanding to take action against Poland for its “complete disregard and undermine” for the rule of law. The Polish democratic crisis is only one of the many examples of states where national political institutions are not longer responding nor dealing with the global trends affecting the rule of law in their countries. Today’s challenges, from the flight from war-refugees to the management of the commons, and the environmental crisis, are being tackled at the local level from some City Councils across Europe. Some cities are proving to be spaces with an outstanding capacity to confront and face reality with reachable solutions. It is in the city where dynamic and organic transformations of social struggles are happening thanks to citizens-led measures and new forms of political participation. Barcelona, Madrid or A Coruna, are some of the most cited cases of successful municipalists governments in Europe. But these are not the only existing examples. In the Polish case, in a country accused of systemic threats to the rule of law, the city of Lublin is successfully translating the political struggles at the national level into political participation and re-appropriation of the public space for its citizens. Lublin is the ninth largest city in Poland and the capital of Lublin Voivodeship with a population of 349,103 people. In 2010, Mr Krzysztof Źuk was elected the Mayor of the City of Lublin and he was re-elected for the second term securing a majority of 60.13% in the first round of the local government elections held at the end of 2014. We spoke to Piotr Choroś, political scientist and head of social participation office in Lublin’s Municipal Office. He is specialist in the field of cooperation with local government, intercultural competence and anti-discrimination policies, and in the Lublin municipal office, he is responsible for the use and development of new technologies in communication with the residents.
Anna Bergren Miller: When the City Council of Barcelona asked democracy activist and researcher Mayo Fuster Morell for policy recommendations regarding the sharing economy, she suggested that the City Council take a different approach: Rather than relying on an expert to dictate policy from the top down, why not use a collaborative process to build a sustainable set of institutions and practices that would draw strength from the grassroots?
Fuster Morell crowdsourced a sharing economy policy framework through a series of in-person and online interactions with a range of stakeholders, including city residents, representatives of sharing economy initiatives, and municipal authorities. From the 120 policy recommendations initially drafted, Barcelona’s city council has since developed a collaborative economy action plan and provided funding to specific projects. Meanwhile, the broader conversation on the sharing economy in Barcelona continues through organizations including Procomuns, which started in March 2016 as a policy brainstorming forum.
I spoke to Fuster Morell recently about the process behind and the prospects for the Barcelona policy recommendations. We talked through what Fuster Morell calls Barcelona’s collaborative economy “ecosystem,” the status of the collaborative economy plan, and the replicability of the Catalan capital’s particular approach to sharing.
Anna Bergren Miller: You were instrumental in helping craft a series of policy recommendations regarding the sharing economy in the city of Barcelona. How did the policy recommendations come to be? Specifically, how did you involve city residents in the process?
Mayo Fuster Morell: Barcelona City Council asked me to advise them about what to do regarding the collaborative economy. I suggested that we build an ecosystem of public policies involving the different stakeholders. This way, even if there is a change of government in the next election, the city will have a structure of actors and relationships already in place.
At the City Council of Barcelona there is a lack of expertise in this matter. They don’t know about the technologies, or the companies involved because it’s pretty new. We have an historical tradition of commons production in the city. But until this government, there hasn’t been an institutional interest in supporting collaboration.
We built the stakeholder ecosystem in layers. The first layer is BarCola, a coworking group between the city council and the sector. To join BarCola as an initiative, you have to be active in Barcelona. We privilege organizations that take a commons approach, which means that they are based on cooperatives, foundations, or enterprises that have a democratic government system. We prioritize projects that are based on open source or open data, that are connected to social challenges in the city, and that have socially inclusive policies.
BarCola meets every month or month and a half. We also communicate frequently on a mailing list and Telegram. Our main concern is promotion. For example, we are not so much about penalizing Airbnb, as about how we build an incubating system and funding for new initiatives, to promote the modalities that we are more in favor of. The second layer of the ecosystem is Procomuns, which started as an event in March to open the proposals for policy recommendations for the city council. Four hundred people participated, and spent three days discussing how the city council can do support a commons development, and a collaborative economy. The event resulted in the Procomuns declaration with 120 policy recommendations. We sent it to Barcelona City Council, obviously, but also to European Commission and other organizations.
Now Procomuns is a monthly Meetup. At each meeting, we address different issues. We are going to do another big event at the end of June, in Barcelona. Out of the initial 120 policy recommendations emerged the third layer of the ecosystem, which is Decidem Barcelona. Decidem Barcelona is a participatory democracy platform for citizens to provide feedback on municipal policies in every area. Using Decidem Barcelona, we selected the policies that were more supported by Barcelona residents. With that, we defined the Barcelona collaborative economy plan, which has 80 percent of the 120 policies generated by Procomuns. It doesn’t have them all, because there are some areas that are not under the competency of Barcelona City Council.
Now we have a final layer of the ecosystem. We created an inter-area body inside of the city council, which coordinates what we are doing regarding transport, housing, tourism, and labor. This layer operates solely within the municipal government.
Tell me more about the city council’s response. Was creating a collaborative economy plan something that they were encouraging you to do, or did you bring it to them? How receptive were they, and where have they taken it since?
The current Barcelona government started 18 months ago as a citizens’ candidature with many non-professional politicians. For example, our mayor Ada Colau was very active in the housing movement. All of them were very much in support the idea of injecting the citizens into the policy process. There was not resistance.
But some of the city council, when they think about the collaborative economy, they only think about Uber or Airbnb. They are not aware of the other movements. So the first step actually was a bit hard. We had to say, okay, the collaborative economy is not only the big for-profit actors.
What is the current status of the Barcelona policies?
The city now has a collaborative economy plan and budget. The plan is not available online, but to give you some examples of the measures involved: We created a program of entrepreneurship on the collaborative economy. We did a call for new initiatives, and we selected 30, to which we will provide mentorship, legal advice, and match funding. Like with BarCola, we prioritize the initiatives that are more connected to the commons. We have also been mapping the city council’s underutilized infrastructure resources, starting with computers, in order to put them to collaborative uses by the citizens. We have also begun a €100,000 match funding program, and are designing a collaborative economy incubator.
We support a lot of events. We provide funding for OuiShare; we provide funding for the local annual meeting of the social economy. We support the annual meeting of the city’s cooperatives. We also supported an event about do-it-yourself technology. We have a study underway on the level of participation in the collaborative economy within Barcelona. We are also developing a framework for understanding its impact.
What’s the timeline for the study?
The study will be ready in July.
A lot of what you’ve been able to do seems specific to Barcelona, to the political climate and the history and culture there. But have you heard from other cities that have wanted to model your process? Or were you looking at other cities as examples?
I think it’s very unique to Barcelona, this element of believing that collaborative economy policy should be built collaboratively. We also have a very clear position regarding which initiatives are the best models to promote. But we are not unique in providing some programs of support. For example, Seoul has put a lot of resources into promoting the collaborative economy. Also, Amsterdam is providing a lot of resources, but with a different perspective.
The geographer David Harvey has recently written and spoken about so-called “Rebel Cities.” Barcelona has been identified as part of a nascent network of Rebel Cities. What is a Rebel City? Why do they matter now? And what evidence is there that they are beginning to work together?
In the context of Spain, “Rebel Cities” refers to the cities that are governed by citizens’ candidatures as of the last municipal elections. In each case, a unique coalition won power — so they have their independence. But, recognizing the affinities between then, we built a network of Rebel Cities in order to exchange experiences and learn from each other. We recently suggested a similar process, building on Spain’s experience, for Rebel Cities in the United States.
[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PNJM8py9-X4] This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Header photo of the city of Barcelona by Bert Kaufmannvia Flickr.
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.