Barcelona: building a new local economics

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‘We are living in extraordinary times, that need bravery and creative solutions.’ – Ada Colau, Mayor of Barcelona.

I recently visited Barcelona – invited to attend and speak at Municilab. The visit builds on ongoing activity that CLES is undertaking with organisations within the city. This two-day event was a fascinating and exciting exploration of municipalism, and how to build a more social and economically just Barcelona.

Across many cities, there is growing recognition that the liberal economic approach to city economic development is not working.  Too often, the wealth created is held by too few, and there is growing inequality. Furthermore, problems of global and local environmental change and pollution are downplayed. However, Barcelona is at the forefront of attempts to build an alternative. In the UK, we must take heed and support their bravery and creativity.

Across the world, city governments are keen on stating the positives, but they often mask painful realities. Economic growth and wealth just trickles down in the form of low wage and insecure work. The lauded boomgoggling of inward investment is rarely socially distributed. Land and property investment brings aggressive gentrification and rising house prices, often pricing the young out of the market.  Our re-invigorated city centres often bring diseconomies of congestion, pollution and the privatisation of public space.

Growing economic democracy

In response to the political and economic crisis of housing, poverty and a city of divides, Barcelona En Comú (a coalition of independents and progressive political parties), and Mayor Ada Colau (herself a member of an anti eviction group (Plataforma de afectados por la hipoteca), were elected on a platform of ‘fair, redistributive, sustainable politics’.  This municipalism in Barcelona starts with citizens, their experiences and the ‘social realities of the city’.  From a range of ‘citizen platforms’, they are aiming to pluralise and transform governance and the municipal institutions of the city.  In doing so, Barcelona is challenging the accepted wisdom and convention of established institutions with their socially constructed worldview too often forged by the investor, the speculator and the powerful.

Barcelona En Comú citizen democracy is plural, feminized, and deep (‘democracy as something you do, not consume’).  It aims to reduce hierarchy, and patriarchy. As Ada Colau says, this is the ‘city as an agora, not a temple’. Politics for Barcelona En Comú is a space, not an institution. I would characterise this process in Barcelona as less ‘socialism’ – of the top down institutional kind – but more of a ‘social’ – ism.

Citizen power in place

City policy in Barcelona is the brave launch of a municipalist fight back against rapacity – where the rights to the city, the commons, solidarity and democracy have been eroded by the constant expansion and reinvention of global capitalism. What we have here is an attempt to build a new progressive municipal point of reference, in which all citizens have a stake. Barcelona and its municipalism are attempting to create a progressive and fixed territorial counter point to what Marx presciently described as capitalism’s ongoing ability to create a situation where ‘all that is solid melts into air’.

Given that all cities, including Barcelona, are connected to the global economy and are competing for inward investment, this is a risky but fascinating theoretical and practical endeavour. Indeed, many jobs and livelihoods dependent upon cities playing to the rules of the global economy. So how much can it truly achieve?

On one hand, it’s using traditional activist interventionist policy. Barcelona has begun to temper the worst excesses of the market (i.e reformed hotel tax), and are attempting to fetter Airbnb and the rise of apartment ownership perceived to be pushing many Barcelonans out of their own neighbourhoods. However, the political challenges are deep. Barcelona En Comú only has 11 seats (with additional support from 3 in socialist party) out of 43 in the Municipal Council, and in that is hampered in all it would like to do.

Nevertheless, on the other hand, there is something else in play here which is more subtle, but potentially even more disruptive.  The new municipalist movement is raising awareness of the problems accrued from a singularity of thinking and a narrow set of vested self-interests.  We should not underestimate the fundamental weakness of liberal economics. It’s narrowness means it can potentially be undermined by a plurality of citizens who build a broad and deep democracy. In this, municipal institutions are being changed.

Open Municipal institutions

Barcelona Activa has provided support to local business and local commercial activities for 30 years. In traditional terms it has been a success. However, it is now being extended to consider social innovation, district centres, the local economy, and local wealth building, as advocated by CLES. It is becoming more plural, democratised and open. It is now ‘reshaping the balance between neighbourhoods to achieve a fairer model in terms of economic development from the vision of the plural economy, including the social and solidarity economy’.

Furthermore, the work of CLES’ partner PEMB Barcelona, and its director, Oriol Estela Barnet, is notable. PEMB is a private, not-for-profit association, promoted by Barcelona City Council and the Metropolitan Area of Barcelona and presided over by Ada Colau – president of the Metropolitan Area of Barcelona (AMB). It is tasked with developing the strategic plan (social and economic) for Metropolitan Barcelona, a region of 164 municipalities that includes the AMB.  Their work is imbued with the new municipalism. They have an activist approach to the market, and seek to influence and cajole: making it bend to the diversity, plural social realities of the city, neighbourhoods and all the municipalities within the metropolitan area.

Housed in a co-working space, a few blocks from Plaça de Catalunya, Oriol and his team are a small economic planning ‘unit’. Not unlike what we have in the UK. However, it is more akin to a progressive think tank than a municipal agency, acting as a crucible of ideas and action, alongside its formal economic planning role.  It’s very early days, but already we can see how a different conceptualisation of the city economic policy is starting to emerge. In this, there is a recognition of the need to ‘open a new stage’, for a more socially just economy to be discussed and grow. I believe they are looking to build a ‘social economy’, but not (as we tend to have it in the UK) as a sector, but rather as a basis to what a whole city economy should be.

Moving the process forward

For now, given the electoral politics, these new municipal institutions, sit alongside some traditionally focused organisations.  In practical terms, the two sides (the liberal and the progressive, the mainstream and the new mainstream) sit together within the municipal space (at times uneasily). However, this is a process. If the new municipalism takes hold and the new economics delivers results, then the old institutions will be challenged yet again, as a different city consciousness, democracy and economics takes hold.

What is happening in Barcelona is growing around the world (see Fearless Cities) and has deep resonance within our own cities here in the UK. We know that economic stewardship of our cities is failing far too many. However, like Barcelona, many places are recognising this, and there are progressive actions (see good local economies and CLES work in Preston). The progressive UK task is to amplify and accelerate this new urban agenda, allowing a socially and economically just set of policies to become the new mainstream. Barcelona should give us great hope. There are alternatives. They can be done at scale, and a new politics and economy can be built.  We must get on…