SPAIN | Winning the Commons in Barcelona

By Mayo Fuster Morell, May 26, 2015

Commons conquer Barcelona! A victory for David over Goliath

On May 24th the candidature “Barcelona in Common” won the municipal elections and “Now Madrid”- a candidature also connected to commons ethos – became a key force for the governance of Madrid city. Those are only two of the many surprises from yesterday’s municipal and regional elections in Spain. Cities might now be the departing point of a larger political change. Electoral results opened up an optimistic scenario for the attempt to also win the national elections at the end of this year, or even in a larger run, a South European coalition against austerity.

The Popular Party and Socialist Party remain the main parties, since the country transition to democracy in late 70s, but ‘power forces-as-usual’ suffered an important blow. Bipartism dropped from 65% at the last elections 4 years ago to 52% of the nationwide vote. While it’s also true that the renewal of power forces, instead of its change, are promoted by status quo interests and fractionalization by new parties, (the case of centrist “Citizens” emerged with force as a new political protagonist, for example), still the irruption of grass-roots candidature is impressive for its dimension and its speed. It also fueled the increase of at least 5 points electoral participation.

Ada Colau is escorted out by riot police officers after occupying a bank in Barcelona, Spain in 2013. Now she is Barcelona's next Mayor.
Ada Colau is escorted out by riot police officers after occupying a bank in Barcelona, Spain in 2013. Now she is Barcelona’s next Mayor.

Only four years after Indignados /15M rose up for “real democracy now” in opposition to politicians “who don’t represent us” and the “dictatorship of the markets”, its impact has become so evident that it cannot be any more denied. The fabric of the new candidatures is composed of social movement actors. To give a taste of it, Ada Colau, a direct action anti-eviction activist and squatter is going to be the next mayor of Barcelona. A joke from history: an activist against housing evictions “evicts” the usual politicians from the city hall! Considering the leader’s trajectory, it could also be said that the cycle started with the anti-Globalization Movement (the background of Colau or Pablo Iglesias, leader of Podemos/Yes we can), but also succeeded in mobilizing once again the generation that fought to bring back democracy in Spain against the Franco regime (background of Manuela Carmena of “Now Madrid”, a retired judge and the most probable next mayor of Madrid).

From the programs, the first thing to highlight is the centrality of urgent plans to rescue citizens suffocating from the austerity policies, such as with the implementation of several modalities of basic income, and the revision of public services privatization. An ethical code to regulate politicians regarding transparency and the abolition of politician privileges (i.e. limits wages for politicians to $29,000 a year) and the commitment to support citizens initiatives.

A part of its political importance, it is fascinating from an organizational perspective. In less than one year and without connections to political, economical, judicial and traditional media power, ordinary citizens coming together have been able to gain important positions in the political system.  A victory for David over Goliath – combining among its means: crowd funding, crowdsourced programs, neighbourhood assemblies, and networked online voting. But also, as in the case of the Podemos leader, building on popularity gained by his own TV program.

How was the song? First we take Barcelona, and then we take Manhattan? Indeed, some are working for it. There has been a delegation of activists from NYC visiting Spain during the campaign in order to learn from the experience and “export” such people-raising in their own cities. There are many lessons and insights to extract. I’ll try to suggest you just a few, hoping them inspirational to start similar processes in other countries.

The CC effect – One of the – mainly young – citizens struggles that immediately preceded and afterward fed the emergence of the 15M mobilization was provoked by a reaction to a law promoted by the Government, repressive of the online sharing and the free culture (Sinde Law in December 2010). To a large extent this movement of collaborative cultures on the web reacted like Lessig did in 2008, shifting from “Creative Commons” to “Change Congress”. It moved from focusing on sectorial politics connected to intellectual property and Internet regulation to the understanding that to defend these freedoms it is necessary to change the political system as a whole. In this move, the free culture and peer production model became the inspirational organizational form to organize political protest. I explained in detail that move in my luncheon presentation at Berkman center and at The Wealth of networks. The Spanish translation of Yochai Benkler’s “The Wealth of networks” in 2015 is not a coincidence, and is a resource to understand those organizational models. In sum, the sectors holding expertise around methodologies of co-creation and to engage with new forms of collaboration supported by online means has great political potential.

The Wikipedia “hidden innovation” model – Even if there are large organizational innovations, the discourse should be “plain and basic” . Mako Hill studied why Wikipedia was able to succeed in 2001, while other attempts to build an online encyclopedia did not. One of its conclusions is that Wikipedia was easier to understand conceptually, even while being innovative in its method. It held firm on the traditional notion of an encyclopedia: a centuries-old idea. Similarly, it could be argued here – the discourse able to raise votes for a political deep change in Spain is not vanguardist or particularly innovative, but popular, accessible to everyone, and connected to basic needs. Some point to radical populism reinterpreting Laclau and Mouffe. It is a “battle” around the common sense, around gaining the hegemony. While, more vanguardist models, such as new parties connected to “innovative” discourse and Internet identity, such as Pirate Party or X Party, have been relevant providing organizational ideas, they did not obtain general population votes (X Party obtained 0.64 % at last year European elections). In sum, innovative methods, yes, but popular discourse must be connected to an agenda of basic common needs.

Top and Down – These organizational processes are neither Top down not Bottom up, but “Top and Down”. Perhaps, more precisely: “A visually recognizable top working for a distributed down“. These forces rely on strong leaders, but also on the rise of a collaborative and free operational base. A key concept is “overflow”. It refers to the capacity of losing control over the process, and to the freedom to operate in the engagement of the mobilization process. The raising of creativity of actions of support not under the control of the “parties” seems to be a relevant aspect for the success of these processes (this is the case of thestudied why Wikipedia was able to succeed in 2001 around the candidatures). Furthermore, there are not clear boundaries about who is part of the “parties” or who is not, there are not rituals that establish who is part or who is not, but self activation though participation is the way to become part of it. Still leaders have strong presence, their faces became one of the key symbols of the process (i.e. the symbol at the voting ballots is not the candidature logo, but the leader’s face). Visual symbols in the visual Internet, where TV though Internet became again a key channel. Particularly, TV remains a key channel for leadership to engage with popular sectors of the population, that early middle class social movements adopters of Internet were not able to connect with. Leaders credibility is built over communication capacity and long social commitment. Candidatures lead by women – no matter their age – (women leaders at main cities such as Barcelona, Madrid and Valencia) are better able to increase vote by transmitting change and having a more democratic leadership style. As Ada Colau Barcelona, next mayor and originally Zapatista put it: “lead by obeying people’s orders”. Leader’s positions are based on power “for“ the base, not “over”. In sum – a visually recognizable social leadership through an uncontrolled distributed form of engagement.

Again, these are just three “impressionist” insights from the current people raising process in Spain. More to come. 2015 is the year of change, so it will continue. Now, time to celebrate. I leave you with the “rumba” music of the “run run” singed by our next Barcelona mayor:

“Do you hear the buzz? Let’s defend the common good” go the lyrics of the campaign song of ‘Barcelona in Common’, Set to the rhythm of a rumba and sung by activist Ada Colau, who won the election to become Barcelona’s next mayor, it’s the theme song for a new story in politics.


Mayo from Barcelona

Mayo Fuster Morell holds a Ramon y Cajal researcher position at the Institute of Government and Public Policies (IGOP) at the Autonomous University of Barcelona, where she directs research group on digital commons and Internet politics. Among other ongoing empirical research in the field, she is the Principal Investigator for at the European Project Open Knowledge Foundation on the conditions that favor value creation in collaborative production and decentralize infrastructures. She is also Faculty Associated at the Berkman center, where she collaborates with Prof. Yochai Benkler.

She is member of the advisory board of the Open Knowledge Foundation and Research Committee of the Wikimedia Foundation, and of their locals chapters in Spain/Catalonia. She is member of Interferencias – Consortium of social movements studies at the European University Institute (Florence). She writes for the blog Interferencias at the Spanish Newspaper

This content is derived from, in collaboration with the author.