Barcelona has shown the transformative role urban municipalities can play in conjunction with local civil society.
In recent years, the transformative potential of municipalism has been recognised to an unprecedented degree, whether by social movements at the base or the elites of the World Economic Forum in Davos. Municipalities—and especially cities—are leading the social, mobility and consumption changes to move us towards more just and sustainable societies, essential for social justice and the survival of the planet.
For eight years, in Barcelona this transformative potential carried the name of Ada Colau. The arrival to the mayoralty of an activist for the right to housing from a working-class background flowed from the citizen mobilisations of the early part of the last decade, associated with the protests against an outdated and corrupt representative system. This democratised the institutions and marked a turning-point in Barcelona’s politics, opening the path towards a new way of doing politics—not only at the service of the citizenry but with the citizenry.
Hence the work done In Barcelona to increase and enhance the channels for listening to the citizens and for their involvement, with ‘participatory budgeting’ and extensive processes of neighbourhood participation in urban transformation. Only by reinforcing these channels of direct and binding democracy will we achieve a more equitable distribution of power, where decisions are made by the people most closely affected, making ‘co-production’ a way of doing politics.
To govern in this way, essential is an organised civil society, which demands to be part of decisions made by the city council while including those most knowledgeable about the issues. This condition is fully met in Barcelona, thanks to secular traditions such as co-operatives, neighbourhood associations and various feminisms. These have organised in successive periods of scarcity, crisis and cutbacks, with corresponding revolts and community networks emerging to tackle them.
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Feminisms without complexes
Colau’s arrival opened the door for the city council to start talking about feminisms without complexes. The first female mayor of Barcelona, she was also first to conceive a councillor’s office for feminism—not just a ‘women’s office’. That, in 2015, was groundbreaking. And much more was to follow.
Since then, Barcelona has been a benchmark and a forerunner in social and feminist policies, extending from urban transformation to policies on care. It has promoted a feminist policy for the ‘99 per cent’, focused on improving the material conditions of people and, especially, those women usually relegated to the peripheries of cities: working women, migrants and LBT women. These have all become protagonists of city policies.
This feminism of the 99 per cent is inclusive and carries a class complexion. We have worked especially hard helping workers in precarious employment to defend their labour rights and to break into careers in technology through programmes such as BcnFemTech, tackling the gender gap in this sector with an intersectional approach. All public policies, including urban planning, education and culture, have been addressed with a cross-cutting gender perspective.
We have always walked hand in hand with the LGBTI+ community, promoting specific employment programmes for trans* people and creating, together with the relevant organisations, the first municipal LGBTI centre, among other things. We have also established alliances with many social and economic actors in the city, from neighbourhood associations to businesspeople who promote nightlife. Here we have aimed to ensure that all citizens, and especially men, feel challenged but included in this feminist transformation, for example with the ‘We won’t keep quiet’ protocol to prevent and tackle sexual assaults in leisure spaces.
In short, women and the feminist agenda have entered Barcelona City Council in a massive and transformative way—a revolution in itself. To consolidate these advances, we shall need feminist leaders who continue to transform institutions and, consequently, ways of doing politics and how the city and its services are conceived. There remain deeply patriarchal structures and hierarchies, including in their conceptions of time and (lack of) care. There is also tremendous hostility to the reality many women face, expressed in high levels of politically-motivated violence and abuse in institutions, the media and social networks.
This transformation is however now at risk due to the rise of the far right—partly as a reaction to the social advances of recent years. In Barcelona, and in general throughout Spain, the results of the recent elections to the municipalities and autonomous communities can return to government those who would open the door to speculation, deny the climate crisis and show no interest in social policy directed at those who need it most.
Particularly worrying is that the far right will have a space, voice and vote in the municipal plenary in Barcelona. This will introduce an openly anti-feminist narrative, which thrives on generating and fuelling social tensions and has a double effect.
On the one hand, it polarises society and alienates a large number of citizens from public institutions—whether because the tone of insult and constant confrontation acts as a deterrent or because the narrative cuts through that institutions are unworthy and illegitimate (as long as the far right is not in control of them). On the other hand, it will undermine the opening up and democratisation of the institutions, blocking new proposals along these lines while continuing to condemn the work carried out by city agencies.
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From the left, at a municipal as well as state level, we need to respond with mutual solidarity and firmness in the defence of rights. We also need to analyse in depth how we communicate our policies and leadership in a climate where the powers that be prefer to encourage the rise of the far right rather than accept our presence in the institutions.
And, more than ever, we have to organise ourselves, from the social movements and left-wing activism, to reclaim our rights. We cannot lose sight of the fact that our arrival in the institutions has been an exception to the system, not the norm, and that resistance to the far right and the achievement of social rights have always come hand in hand with self-organisation, mobilisation in the neighbourhoods and co-ordination among social movements to achieve collective goals.
This does not imply giving up on the institutions: we have shown that transformation is possible, and we cannot take a step back. In Barcelona and in Spain we have a new election in a matter of weeks. It is time to reflect, reorganise on a basis of unity and be prepared to regain the social and feminist leadership we need.
This is part of a series on ‘global cities’ supported by the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung
Laura Pérez Castaño is the deputy mayor of Barcelona responsible for social rights, global justice, feminism and LGBTI issues. She was first elected to the city council in 2015, representing Barcelona en Comú.