Eight ways you can take back control of a city, according to Barcelona's En Comu


In almost every meeting and conversation we have, the relevance and profundity of Brexit's rallying cry "take back control" comes to the fore. We try to relate it to crises that aren't just current and socio-economic, or about anxieties over immigration and identity, but to something much deeper, longer and broader.

We feel there is a profound challenge here - particularly to the idea that our current democratic and productive arrangements remotely answer our rich and complex human natures, in all their subtlety and wonder. Much of what we explore in this site - for example, our collaboratory work in Plymouth, Birmingham and Wigan; or our consideration on the role of primary emotions and motivations underlying our politics - tries to answer this challenge. 

On this search, we recently came upon this very helpful 2017 piece on Open Democracy, titled "Eight lessons from Barcelona en Comú on how to Take Back Control". And In our manoeuvres this week, we heard a line from a member of EnComu platform. Their politics is defined by "caring for life" - a beautiful notion.

But how is this done, practically (and municipally)? What steps do you take to take back control of a city? We've selected a few out of the full list which seem relevant to our own framework:

Power is the capacity to act

BComú does not subscribe to traditional notions of power, whereby if you hold public office, you somehow ‘have’ power. On the contrary, power is the capacity to bring about change, and the ‘occupation of the institutions’ is only one part of what makes change possible.

BComú emerged after almost a decade of major street-protests, anti-eviction campaigns, squatting movements, anti-corruption campaigns, and youth movements – the most visible form being the ’15-M’ or ‘indignados’ protests that began in 2011. After years of being at a high-level of mobilization, many within these movements made a strategic wager – we’ve learned how to occupy the squares, but what happens if we try to occupy the institutions?

Frustrated by the limits of what could be achieved by being mobilized only outside of institutions, the decision to form BComú was to try to occupy the institutions as part of the same movement that occupied the squares. In practice, this is not so simple.

...The key lesson here is that occupying the institutions is not enough. An electoral strategy is not sufficient alone to create change. The power to act comes from a combination of occupying both the institutions and the squares, of social movements organizing and exercising leverage, providing social force that can be coupled with the potential of the occupied institutions – the power to change comes when these work in tandem. 

...One of the biggest dangers in looking to build radical municipalist movements in other cities is to mistake electoral victory with victory, to sit back and think that now we’ve got ‘our guys’ in the institutions, we can sit back and let change occur.  

A politics that works begins by listening

BComú [meaning "Barcelona En Comu"] started life with an extensive process of listening, responding to ordinary peoples’ concerns, and crowd-sourcing ideas – as summarized in its guide to building a citizen municipal platform.

Drawing on proposals gathered at meetings in public squares across the city, BComú created a programme reflecting immediate issues in local neighbourhoods, city-wide problems and broader discontent with the political system. Local meetings were complemented by technical and policy committees, and an extensive process of online consultation.

This process resulted in a political platform that stressed the need to tackle the “social emergency” – problems such as home evictions on a huge scale, or the effect of uncontrolled mass tourism. These priorities came from listening to citizens across the city rather than an echo-chamber of business and political elites. BComú’s election results reflected this broader appeal: it won its highest share of the vote in Barcelona’s poorest neighbourhoods, in part through increasing turnout in those areas...

A politics that works never stops listening

Politics doesn’t happen every four years – it is the everyday process of shaping the conditions in which we live our lives. This means that one of the central tasks of a politics that works is to forge a new relationship between citizens and the institutions that we use to govern our societies.

For BComú, the everyday basis of politics means citizens and civil society organisations directly shaping the strategic plan of their city. It means not just consultation, but active empowerment in helping move citizens from being ‘recipients’ of a politics that is done to them, to active political agents that shape the every-day life of their city.

In the first months of occupying the institutions, BComú introduced an open-source platform, Decidim Barcelona, for citizens to co-create the municipal action plan for the city. Over 10,000 proposals were registered by the site’s 25,000 registered users. While that’s a small share of the city’s population, the online process was complemented by over 400 in-person meetings.

The Decidim platform is now being adapted to run participatory budgetary pilot-schemes in two districts, as well as being used in the ongoing development of new infrastructure, pedestrianisation and transport schemes. Meanwhile, the municipal Department of Participation is undertaking a systematic rethinking of the ‘meaning’ of participation, looking to move away from meaningless ‘consultations’ and towards methods for active empowerment.

This is an imperfect process – and BComú have got things wrong at times, such as the failure to properly engage when introducing a SuperBlock in the Poblenou district – but the principle is simple. To govern well, you must create new processes for obeying citizens’ demands...

Politics does not have to be the preserve of rich old white men

Ada Colau is the first female mayor of Barcelona. She is a co-founder of BComú, and was formerly the spokesperson of the Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca (Mortgage Victims Platform), a grassroots campaign challenging evictions and Spain’s unjust property laws. Colau leads a group of eleven district councillors, seven of whom are women, whose average age is 40.  

BComú’s vision of a “feminized politics” represents a significant break with the existing political order. “You can be in politics without being a strong, arrogant male, who’s ultra-confident, who knows the answer to everything”, Colau explains. Instead, she offers a political style that openly expresses doubts and contradictions. This is backed by a values-based politics that emphasizes the role of community and the common good – as well as policies designed to build on that vision.

The City Council’s Department of Life Cycles, Feminisms and LGBTI is the institutional expression of these values. It has significantly increased the budget for campaigns against sexist violence, as well as leading a council working group that looks to identify and tackle the feminization of poverty...

More on the eight ways here. It's also worth keeping in touch with EnComu's global network, Fearless Cities, which explores and shares its practice right across the planet, with a map of "fearless cities" filling up steadily. There can be a much better story about "taking back control" than the one we hear from the populists and manipulators.