The activists who took over the city hall of Catalonia’s capital have changed one of Europe’s preeminent cities for good, while also confronting the limits of being in power.
Published in Waging Nonviolence, The Forge, and Dissent.
“They want us isolated, but they will find us in common.”
In May 2015, this slogan was the rallying cry of a Spanish movement that startled its country’s political establishment by propelling into power Ada Colau, Barcelona’s first female mayor. Colau took office alongside a winning slate of city councilors who had joined together in a new formation called Barcelona en Comú, Catalan for “Barcelona in Common.” Their victory reflected a decision by activists to move from occupying the town squares to taking over city halls, and it would have profound consequences for the future of one of Europe’s most prominent metropolitan areas.
Eight years later, Ada Colau and the Comuns, as they are referred to locally, face a different political situation. They are no longer insurgent outsiders launching an improbable challenge to the region’s traditional parties. Rather, they are leaders who have spent eight years in office, amassing a record of accomplishment but also encountering the challenges of governance. Now, they are fighting for a third term — attempting not only to convince voters that their mission of creating a “fearless city” should continue, but also to cobble together alliances with other parties that will allow them to stay in command of Barcelona’s historic City Hall.
After two terms, the radical experiment in Barcelona has found limits to the project of bringing social movement energy into the corridors of institutional power. And yet, it remains an intriguing model of electoral strategy.
So what can we learn from the successes and shortcomings of Barcelona en Comú so far? And can the Comuns take their process of democratic revolt further?
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Winning back the city
Barcelona en Comú came out of a moment of intensive social movement activity that fomented after the global financial crisis of 2008. In the spring of 2011, more than six million Spaniards poured into public spaces across some 60 towns and cities, joining protests that included a May 15 mobilization in Madrid’s Puerta del Sol square. The demonstration turned into a 28-day occupation and gave name to the “M15” movement. Its participants, known as the Indignados, or “the outraged,” railed against unemployment, austerity and rampant corruption in government, rejecting the country’s elite with the call of “no nos representan,” or “they don’t represent us.” Along with the “movement of the squares” in Greece, the mobilization shook Europe and helped to inspire Occupy Wall Street later that year.
Subsequently, activists in Barcelona and other Spanish cities decided to channel some of the spirit of the protests into efforts to take over the institutions of local government. “We took the social networks, we took the streets and we took the squares,” leaders of Barcelona en Comú would later write. “However, we found that change was being blocked from above by the institutions. So… we decided to win back the city.”
The Comuns drew not only from the ethos of M15, but also from Barcelona’s vibrant network of neighborhood movements. Ada Colau, for one, rose to prominence as spokesperson of the Platform for People Affected by Mortgages, or PAH, a dynamic anti-eviction group. The PAH formed support groups for people in debt, used nonviolent direct action to stop residents from being removed from their homes, led delegations to pressure banks to accept new agreements with mortgage holders, and worked to transform the country’s housing laws. Shortly after Colau was photographed being dragged away by riot police during one particularly visible 2013 protest against a bank that refused to negotiate with an evicted family, one local newspaper poll showed a 90 percent approval rating for the organization.
Instead of forming a traditional political organization, Colau and other organizers envisioned Barcelona en Comú as a new structure that would be open, transparent and participatory. They sought to create a “confluence” that would bring a new social base into politics and invite in members who were not previously represented. Calling their new organization a “platform” rather than a “party,” Barcelona en Comú did include the participation of five existing political parties (Procés Constituent, ICV-EUiA, Podemos, Equo, and the newly formed Guanyem). But they did not divide up the spoils between them, as would be typical in most European-style coalition politics. Rather, the Comuns required these pre-existing groups to join in a wider collective process and to build a shared identity around a common agenda for transforming the city.
Barcelona en Comú crafted its electoral program through proposals gleaned from open meetings in public spaces across the city and ideas from civic organizations. This was followed by a process of popular debate and collective refinement that played out over many months. “It is essential to start like this,” the Comuns argued, “proving that there are other ways of doing politics — listening, participating, collaborating — from the very beginning.” The result was an agenda committing newly elected leaders to a program for change that combined neighborhood-level demands with a set of broader mandates. Priorities ranged from combating corruption, guaranteeing social rights and creating housing security, to subsidizing transportation and energy costs for those in need. The Comuns vowed to bring an explicitly feminist lens to city politics, as well as to reign in the runaway expansion of the tourism industry.
At a time when large numbers of residents were disgusted with la casta, the country’s entrenched class of political and economic elites, the populist appeal to voters worked. Barcelona en Comú was able to secure a plurality of seats on the city council in 2015, and Colau subsequently managed to gain a second term as mayor after elections in 2019.
Once in government, the Comuns were able to use municipal institutions to work towards their vision. But they have also seen their aspirations frequently run up against a variety of unpleasant realities. They have had to maneuver within a slow-moving political process while facing the challenges of constant opposition from political foes, demonization by the mainstream media and lawsuits with deep-pocketed corporate backers. In other words, Occupied City Hall proved to be a battleground of its own.
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Eight years matter
Today, the completion of two terms in office invites reflection on what insights can be drawn from the experience of the Comuns. A first notable lesson is straightforward: eight years matter.
Barcelona en Comú can point to many examples of how it has made a significant positive impact over the course of two terms in office. As only a partial list: Ada Colau’s government increased overall social spending by 50 percent, including a significant expansion of mental health services and programs for the homeless. It quadrupled the budget for social housing and built 2,100 new housing units. It recovered €150 million from big companies by cracking down on tax fraud. Among other initiatives designed to control the tourism industry, the administration stood up to intensive lobbying from business and real estate interests by maintaining a years-long moratorium on new hotel construction and imposing regulations on platforms such as Airbnb. They closed upwards of 7,500 illegal tourist flats and, by some estimates, prevented the creation of tens of thousands more.
As scholars Erik Forman, Elia Gran and Sixtine van Outryve reported in Dissent in 2020, “They set up a sustainable public energy company, a publicly owned dental clinic that offers affordable rates and the city’s first municipal LGBTQ center. The city created coop businesses for migrants and refugees and is attempting to use city procurement to source from cooperatives. More recently, they enacted a measure requiring that 30 percent of new buildings be used for affordable housing and created an anti-eviction unit.” Colau’s administration also declared Barcelona a “city of refuge,” expanding municipal services to refugees, asserting a local role in asylum policy and fostering a network of European cities that are welcoming of migrants — a set of actions that clashed with national policies set in Madrid.
Finally, Barcelona has been a leader in pushing cities toward greater sustainability. The city declared a climate emergency in 2020 and committed some $600 million towards slashing carbon emissions. Barcelona’s 103-point climate plan includes the dramatic bolstering of bike lanes, restrictions on polluting vehicles, expanding urban gardens, installation of public solar panels and incorporating sustainability standards into public contracts.
The mayor has been willing to polarize the public around the drive to push cars out of the city. The city’s flagship “Superblock” program aims, in Colau’s words, “to recover one million square meters of public space for popular use” by merging multiple city blocks into pedestrian havens. Environmental writer David Roberts has characterized it as a plan for green urban design “bigger and more ambitious … than anything being discussed in America.” The Superblocks, he wrote, constitute “a vision for a different way of living in the 21st century, one that steps back from many of the mistakes of the auto-besotted 20th century, refocusing on health and community.”
Strangely, despite all of these accomplishments, the Comuns have found themselves more isolated than when they started.
One thing that was exciting about Barcelona en Comú’s dramatic appearance in 2015 is that the group did not emerge alone. Rather, it self-consciously situated itself as part of something larger. Domestically, Barcelona was only one of many leftist drives to capture city government in Spain. A variety of like-minded “municipalist” platforms won office in cities across the country, including A Coruña, Cadíz, Valencia, Zaragoza, and — most prominently — Madrid. Internationally, the Comuns launched a network called “Fearless Cities” to connect with progressive governments in cities from Rosario, Argentina to Bologna, Italy, as well as upstart coalitions still vying for power.
“From the very beginning, those of us who participated in Barcelona en Comú were sure that the democratic rebellion in Barcelona wouldn’t be just a local phenomenon,” the platform’s leaders wrote. “We want Barcelona to be the trigger for a citizen revolution in Catalonia, Spain, Southern Europe and beyond.”
However, in elections in 2019, the wave that gave rise to municipalist hopes across Spain abruptly crashed ashore. In many Spanish cities, progressives were ousted by more conservative opponents; in other cases, activist “confluences” fractured and were replaced by more traditional party politicking. “The right won in Madrid,” explained David Cid, a member of the Catalonian parliament who has been part of the Comuns. Since then, “they have been undoing all the work” of the left, he said. “To really consolidate your model of the city, you can’t change things in four years. You can change a city in eight or 12 years.”
Holding an initial plurality of only 11 of 41 seats on the city council, Barcelona en Comú always relied on the support of other parties to move its initiatives forward. As the establishment media launched relentless attacks on Colau and her colleagues, business interests deployed legal challenges to many progressive measures — blocking, in one instance, efforts to “re-municipalize” Barcelona’s privatized water supplier. The platform’s councilors quickly felt the limits of their power. “Just trying to implement your manifesto when you need the vote of opposition parties to do it means that, inevitably, you’re not going to be able to do everything you wanted to do,” said Kate Shea Baird, who served on the Executive Committee of Barcelona en Comú, in a 2018 interview in the Ecologist.
“You get into City Hall, even a relatively powerful City Hall like Barcelona, and you realize that not all of the power is there,” she continued. “Airbnb has a lot of power. The Catalan government has a lot of power. The Spanish government has a lot of power. The media has a lot of power. Winning the election is the first step to getting anything done.”
Echoing this sentiment, Álvaro Porro, an activist who has become the city’s Commissioner for Social Economy, Local Development and Food Policy, quipped: “We’re the most ambitious government in the history of Barcelona, with the least power in the history of Barcelona.”
During Colau’s first term, the issue of Catalan nationalism exploded into headlines, with large-scale protests for independence meeting staunch repression from the national government. In response, the mayor tried to walk a fine line, supporting the rights of demonstrators but opposing separatist demands — a position that invited criticism from all sides.
In the 2019 elections, Barcelona en Comú, vying for another term in power, came in second place and lost one of its council seats. Colau was able to retain control of City Hall only by securing the backing of the centrist Socialist party as well as that of more conservative councilors who wanted to block pro-independence forces. Reliance on such dealmaking limited the ability of the Comuns to maneuver aggressively, and it also dampened the enthusiasm of its base. Combined with the COVID pandemic, these developments served to slow progress during Colau’s second term.
In advance of the elections in late May, other parties are actively calculating the leverage they might enjoy by shifting to other alliances. Given these circumstances, whether the Comuns can turn eight years of change into 12 remains to be seen.
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Changing the culture of institutional politics is hard
A second important lesson learned after two terms in office is that, while controlling the levers of city power can allow for real gains, changing the culture of institutional politics is another challenge entirely.
From its inception, Barcelona en Comú sought to approach the electoral realm differently than traditional parties. “A citizen platform doesn’t just aim to change local policies,” its leaders wrote. “It also aims to change the rules of the game and create new ways of doing politics.” This ambition created excitement, but it also generated high expectations and opened space for disillusionment with changes that felt less than revolutionary.
As one means of setting itself apart, Barcelona en Comú sought to avoid creating cults of personality around celebrity politicians, favoring instead a social movement model of leaderful participation. However, Ada Colau’s charisma and public appeal have loomed large. This could be seen in the process that brought the Comuns together. In terms of its structure, the platform wanted to reach beyond established political cadres and avoid becoming “a coalition or an alphabet soup of party acronyms.” For the traditional left parties that signed on, agreeing to join such a structure was a sacrifice. After all, their top representatives were not guaranteed priority spots on a “list” of candidates and their political priorities would be subject to review by assemblies of activists.
Yet the reason the small parties in Barcelona were more willing to merge individual identities into a common project than in, say, Madrid, was due to the obvious benefit of being associated with Colau. “Without Ada Colau, who is a completely amazing politician, this process would not be so successful,” argued Mauro Castro, a political scientist who has a background working in Barcelona’s autonomous social movements and is a member of La Hidra Cooperative, a think tank and public education initiative. “To be honest, she’s just a machine. She’s very good at keeping everybody aligned.”
Another way in which Barcelona en Comú attempted to distinguish its candidates from mainstream politicians was by having them sign on to a strict code of ethics. This was designed to curtail the privileges associated with professional politicians and lessen the distance between the city’s political leaders and ordinary residents. Borrowing a slogan from the Mexican Zapatistas, the Comuns dubbed their approach “Governing by Obeying.” The code involved limiting elected officials to two consecutive terms in office, doing away with perks such as official cars and paid expenses, and consenting to high standards of transparency. Moreover, Barcelona en Comú’s councilors — up to and including Colau — agreed to voluntarily cap their income at three times the minimum wage, initially €2,200 (or around $2,500) per month. They have donated the remainder of their official salaries to social movement groups.
Although some other left parties in Spain such as Podemos also follow a similar protocol, it goes without saying that such a practice appears quite extraordinary by U.S. political standards — at least for politicians who are not independently wealthy and actually rely on their government paychecks to live. It also marked a sharp break from precedent in Barcelona: the Guardian reported in 2016 that while Colau’s effective take-home pay came to well under €30,000 during her first year in office, her predecessor Xavier Trias had regularly pocketed €140,000 annually in salary and expenses.
The Code of Ethics has made a lasting impact on the city’s political culture, and it reflects a moment when public outrage at political corruption ran high. Over time, however, the Comuns have moved to relax some standards — particularly their commitment to strict term limits. In 2022, Barcelona en Comú members voted to approve Ada Colau and other senior councilors running once again for reelection.
Another example of how established norms have proven difficult to shake relates to what Colau and other Spanish leftists have called the “feminization of politics.” Central in the formation of Barcelona en Comú was the idea of bringing an overtly feminist perspective to organizing and governance. For Colau, such politics includes a culture of listening and empathy, calling on politicians to “lower the levels of testosterone” in their combative posturing, recognizing the importance of care work, setting up structures that allow for a balance between the personal and the professional. It also means validating the idea that, in the mayor’s words, “politics done collectively are better than those done individualistically.”
This perspective translated into policy. By 2021, the City Council’s website could cite efforts to “incorporate the gender perspective in every area of politics and society so as to combat the more structural aspects of gender inequality and sexism and overcome the situations of discrimination that still persist in a patriarchal society such as ours.” Among other measures, Colau’s government created the Councilor’s Office for Feminism and LGBTI Affairs, created the municipal child care program Concilia to support work-life balance, halted fines on sex workers, launched the “Anti-Sexist Barcelona” program to combat sexual violence, incorporated gender-based criteria into city planning and design, and established Barcelona Activa, an employment program for women.
Yet even supporters feel that change has been limited when it comes to effecting how politics plays out. Gala Pin, an activist who served as a city councilor and deputy mayor with the Comuns from 2015 to 2019, states that, in terms of municipal policy, the focus on feminism has made a big difference. “But feminism in politics,” she said,” if we talk about being able to reconcile private life with being in institutional politics, or how decisions are made, I don’t think there is a big difference now, to be honest. I think the dynamic of the institutions has won the battle in some sense.”
Ada Colau described the tension in a 2016 documentary: “I can’t be the Ada I used to be,” she said. “When I was at the PAH it was easier to show the political power that comes from admitting weakness, contradiction, doubt … Initially I honestly thought this could be carried over into politics and that it was necessary … But that doesn’t work in politics because your own people want you to always be there, to be strong, to lead and to not have any doubts.”
Such experiences reflect a broader difficulty. In Mauro Castro’s view, the Comuns have had to accommodate themselves to functioning within the constraints of mainstream institutions. “They’re doing the best public policy that they can, definitely,” he said. “I would not imagine any better place in the world in terms of doing public policy. But public policies are not changing the way you govern.” Once activists accept the realpolitik of working within the institutions, Castro contends, they are put in a defensive posture that involves highlighting bureaucratic achievements, cautioning about the limits of the possible, and backing away from the more radically participatory visions that animated their initial campaign.
Having spent a term as a deputy mayor, Gala Pin retains faith in the project, but also expresses some reservations: “Over time you internalize the dynamics of political institutions,” she said of her experience. “You change them a little bit, but they change you much more.”
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You still need movements on the outside
A third lesson is that movements and parties play different roles — and perhaps can never be fully reconciled. Barcelona en Comú has consistently emphasized the importance of citizens taking ownership over politics beyond periodically casting votes at the polls. “For us, ‘winning back the city’ is about much more than winning the local elections,” the Comuns’ leaders wrote in their guide to building a municipalist campaign. “It means putting a new, transparent and participatory model of local government, which is under citizen control, into practice … Our strategy has been to start from below, from what we know best: our streets, our neighborhoods.”
Barcelona en Comú has operationalized its vision internally by developing its political positions in frequent consultation with a multi-tiered network of neighborhood assemblies and working groups. Externally, they have implemented mechanisms for the public at large to take part in city policymaking. Perhaps most notable is the online Decidim platform, through which more than 100,000 registered users have voted on citizen-generated proposals for neighborhood improvements and engaged in participatory budgeting processes that, in 2022, distributed some €30 million in resources.
However, the Comuns’ marquee public participation measure — which aimed to allow issues that garnered signatures from just 15,000 voters to go to citywide referendum — faced stiff opposition and was ultimately ruled invalid by the courts. Internally, recruitment of activists slowed after the 2015 elections, as the platform turned to focus on the challenges of running city offices. As two leaders from the group’s executive committee would later write, “The upshot was that it was quite difficult to join Barcelona en Comú as a new member between 2015 and 2018.” Pandemic fatigue later contributed to further demobilization, they added.
Early on, some observers of the political process in Spain had hopes that Podemos at the national level and the municipalist platforms in the cities could become hybrid “movement parties.” These organizations, in the words of sociologist Cristina Flesher Fominaya, would “maintain links to, and characteristics of, participatory social movements while at the same time trying to win state power through elections.” Yet it seems clear that Barcelona en Comú is not a substitute for social movements operating on the outside of mainstream institutions.
“I think it is important to say that we didn’t want to represent the social movements,” notes Gala Pin. Although the Comuns formed as a result of the resolve of many individuals who had been politicized through movement activism to collectively intervene in electoral politics, there was never a formal decision by grassroots groups themselves to endorse the platform. “We said, ‘We come from the movements, but they have to stay independent,’” remarked Pin.
Several aspects of the experience of Barcelona en Comú have highlighted how movements and government operate according to different logics. Outside critics charge that, despite the Comuns’ efforts to engage their base, it is extremely difficult to avoid a situation in which governance becomes the domain of specialized administrators. “It has become professionalized,” Castro said of Barcelona en Comú’s time in City Hall. “It has become something very influenced by the machine.” When social movements raise criticisms, he said, city officials will consistently respond by saying, “Yeah, you know, things are too complicated.”
Moreover, movement participants complain that their groups lost capacity when a large number of organizers were absorbed into roles in the city bureaucracy. As a consequence, there was less active mobilization pushing for the new insiders to pursue their most ambitious goals.
At its best, an inside-outside strategy is able to acknowledge these tensions while also seeing how groups pursuing different approaches can relate to one another as part of a common ecology of change. As Kate Shea Baird has written of the muncipalist project, “transformative politics … must also involve building an ecosystem of social movements, economic initiatives and community institutions that can support these candidates’ agendas from outside City Hall, and hold them to account when necessary.”
During the first year in office, Colau’s own organizational home, the PAH, criticized her over lack of progress in stopping evictions. As scholars Sebastiaan Faber and Bécquer Seguín reported, the mayor responded with a Facebook post in which she stated, “I’d do the same thing in your position.” Colau further explained: “I’ve said it many times and I repeat it again now more forcefully and with more conviction than ever: without an organized and demanding citizenry, not only would there not be real change, there would also not be a democracy worthy of its name.”
Mauro Castro emphasizes other conflicts between outside activists and their contacts in city government. “For example, we are now struggling for a new housing law,” he explained. “And only at the last moment do [the Comuns] say, ‘Go to the streets, protest so we can push more within this coalition government.’” By that time, activists felt disaffected by the process and resented being called in just as reinforcements. “So the movements are like, ‘Fuck you,’” he said.
Castro acknowledges, however, that relationships between inside and outside activists have allowed for valuable informal exchanges of information. Elena Tarifa, a journalist who serves on the international committee of the Comuns, wrote in 2021 that the fact that “many of Barcelona en Comú’s activists come from neighborhood associations and diverse social movements” helps to “keep the channels of communication open.”
Although there have been instances of tension, there have also been times when inside action and social movement protest have combined effectively. In 2018, the city advanced efforts to regulate rideshare services such as Uber — which Colau would later denounce as “speculative pirates.” When initial regulations were blocked by Catalonia’s High Court of Justice, taxi drivers blocked major roads for days in a strike that quickly spread to other cities. City officials stood with the strikers, and Colau helped to pressure the national government in Madrid to reach a settlement favorable to the drivers.
In the end, the push for change from within the government and without requires maintaining a tricky balance — which most politicians scarcely acknowledge at all. Despite having criticisms of the platform, Castro believes that, for social movements, the Comuns losing to more traditional parties would be a blow. “It’s good to have Barcelona en Comú. We need to create more Barcelonas en Comú.” He reflects that after others take over, whenever that may be, “We will realize what it means to lose them.”
Voters will decide if Colau and her colleagues will be able to extend their unusual exercise in governance into a third term following elections later this month. Regardless, the Comuns will leave lasting changes. Before the platform changed the political debate, Gala Pin argued, “no one was talking about massive tourism and the consequences for the city. Maybe some radical social movements were, but the government did not listen to us.” Now it does, she says — and she has seen similar progress on climate change, feminism, LGBTQ recognition and other issues. When it came to housing, Pin said, “city council was always saying ‘we don’t have the power to deal with housing issues.’ Now every party is saying that they want to build up more public housing and that Colau is not doing enough.” Creating those shifts, she contends, is a type of power.
Whatever challenges the experiment in occupying Barcelona’s halls of governance has involved, it has produced profound lessons for those who traveled from movements to institutions to try to make such shifts — and therefore it will remain fruitful ground for study for others looking to transform their own cities. As Álvaro Porro said, “There’s a lot of practical knowledge embodied in this experience, coming from mistakes and from successes, which I really feel we need to share.”
Research assistance provided by Sophia Zaia and Sean Welch. Photo credit: Marc Lozano via Flickr.