Adrian Bua and Jonathan Davies, Centre for Urban Research on Austerity*
*An extended version of this article was originally published on the Centre for Urban Research on Austerity’s (CURA) blog
In May 2015, New Municipalist candidacies entered City Hall in a range of major urban centres throughout Spain. Their policy agendas aimed to transform urban political economies and cleanse politics, whilst acting as a spearhead for deeper changes at higher state tiers and society at large. The New Municipalism involved a radically democratic approach to a perennial issue for transformative politics: the problem of the state. A great example of what Marx meant when he stated that men make history, but they do not do so in conditions of their own choosing, the state is an ensemble of institutions and actors bound by relations, rules and practices inscribed by past struggles. What to do with this dynamic but slow moving, co-ordinated yet contradictory ensemble is one of greatest questions faced by the Left. Its complexity and conservative inertia draw left activists away from it. Its importance in reproducing capitalism makes engaging with it inevitable.
In Urban Studies, we analyse the experience of Municipalist candidacies in Coruña and Santiago, in Galicia, NW Spain. The 15-M protest cycle combined with corruption scandals to open a window of opportunity which progressive candidates in both towns took advantage of in the in 2015 elections. They formed minority governments in pursuit of environmentalism, egalitarianism and radical democracy, through measures such as public housing, basic income, re-municipalizations, debt audits and participatory budgeting. Their governance was however short-lived, ending with defeat in 2019 after just one mandate. Drawing the correct lessons from these troublesome experiences is crucial for future opportunities for change. Below we evaluate New Municipalist politics in its attempt to transform the urban economy, build social counterpower and transform the state.
New Municipalists committed to developing public housing stock and stopping the speculative real estate paradigmatic of Spanish capitalism. Changes in public service contracting were seen as a way to cut neoliberal clientelisms and build alternative economies. Santiago also prioritised the need to diversify beyond tourism, whilst Coruña readied to halt the privatisation of the Port.
Reconstruction of urban economies was a deep challenge. Despite notable victories, such as the institution of a Municipal basic income in Santiago, municipalists faced problems managing long term economic trends outside their jurisdiction. Moreover, affected interests mobilised effectively against urban planning and subcontracting reform. As a result, the New Municipalists were more successful blocking previous policies, such as the privatization of the Port in Coruña, than they were in instituting alternative economic strategies. This fed opposition and media narratives around chaos and economic paralysis, which would stick as the main narrative against New Municipalist governance.
Maintaining the political momentum that swept the New Municipalists to City Hall was fundamental. Crucial to this was continued collaboration with social movements and their activist base, as well as investment in direct and participatory processes. It was hoped that participation would politicise a wider range of urban dwellers than those usually involved in urban administration, broadening the urban coalition and opening space to implement reforms.
However, participatory democracy did not construct the active citizens central to the New Municipalist wager. Participatory reforms also involved changes to intermediation between City Hall and urban citizens, usually done through neighbourhood associations. In side-stepping them, the new forms of participatory democracy antagonised civil society. The New Municipalists lost potential allies, leaving administrations with intermediational and communicative deficits.
The relationship with the activist base also deteriorated. Activist calls for greater accountability and responsiveness exacerbated the besieged mentality of the local politicians, who complained at a lack of moral support. The voter base itself had also diminished in size and capacity, as urban dwellers de-mobilised. New Municipalist candidacies began to look like traditional political parties.
Transforming the state from within
New Municipalists advocated cleansing of state institutions through radical democracy and transparency. Salary caps for politicians would ensure governing integrity and avoid professionalisation. Non-interventionism in appointments to City Hall would avoid replicating clientelistic practices and help gain trust and build alliances within the civil service.
But New Municipalists would come up against an ankylosed and hostile administrative system. Administrative blockages left policies hanging: conspicuous absences of key information, leaks to the press and basic procedural ‘mistakes’. Unexpected battles over mundane matters bogged New Municipalists down, exacerbated by the legislative weakness of the minority governments. Political opposition by traditional parties was extraordinarily united. Conventional opponents on right and left turned into temporary allies with the aim of overcoming New Municipalist disruption of institutional normality.
However, there were under-exploited spaces for action. Many councillors were professionals with high levels of sectoral knowledge, but lacked experienced in administration and knowledge of the specific institutional environments of City Hall. This led to deficits in administrative politics, producing governance problems that fed opposition and media narratives around incompetence and chaos.
A lack of allies at other state scales left New Municipalist candidacies isolated and vulnerable. Hostile actors in higher state tiers created severe problems through legislation and by withdrawing, or delaying, funding. The building of an allied regional political force was rife with infighting, and New Municipalism was in tension with the national left party Podemos over issues of visibility and political protagonism. The resources of the anti-neoliberal left were divided. This was especially damaging when the 15-M wave subsided.
New Municipalists admirably exploited the cracks opened by the 15-M, gaining a foothold within the local state. However, internal weaknesses resulted in their incapacity to expand beyond their electoral base. Moreover, New Municipalist agency was depleted by the disruptive activities of adversaries, which sharpened as establishment actors regained political capacity.
Our analysis demonstrates how debilitating the state can be for anti-systemic projects, and how it enhances the agency of hostile political forces. However, pro-systemic forces have not resolved their own crises, nor restored the power and influence enjoyed in the neoliberal hey-day. The closing down of progressive alternatives such New Municipalism has channelled popular anger towards neo-fascism, but the aperture for radical left politics could quickly re-open. The ways in which New Municipalism resolves its crisis will be of great significance in making the most of future apertures.
Adrian Bua is Lecturer in Urban Politics at De Montfort University. His academic interests span democratic theory, public policy, urban studies and political economy. Currently he is specifically interested in studying processes of democratisation and de-democratisation from a critical political economy perspective.
Jonathan S. Davies is founding Director of the Centre for Urban Research on Austerity and Professor of Critical Policy Studies. His research interests span critical issues in governance, urban studies and public policy.