Local democracy and feminism. Key strategies against neoliberalism.
In the wake of the 15M social movement (formerly the Occupy movement) – and as a reaction to the 2008 financial crisis – the democratic occupation of public spaces would come to be known as Spain’s “municipalist movement”. From 2014, groups of citizens from different backgrounds, many of them linked to urban and anti-neoliberalism social movements, gathered to take a leap towards a municipal institutional policy, experimenting with new forms of political structures.
A loss of faith in institutions, evident all over world, combined with a lack of trust in traditional political parties, resulted in what is called a “window of opportunity”. That is, the possibility of bringing new parties onto the institutional scene, and potentially breaking away from the traditional two-party system which, until now, had proven to be inflexible with regards to newcomers. Moreover, the experience of Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca’s (Platform for People Affected by Mortgages or PAH), a movement that had succeeded in mobilising a great number of people and established great social legitimacy, but did not manage to obtain legislative changes or improved housing policies, seemed to illustrate that social movements were bound by a “glass ceiling” of sorts. This blockage of institutions unreceptive to the demands of civil society organisations, along with the need for new policies to alleviate social suffering due to the financial crisis and austerity policies, gave way to new strategies for political intervention from the community, which had previously been so reluctant to participate directly in elections.
This is how municipalist movements – such as Barcelona en Comú or Ahora Madrid – were created in a number of Spanish cities and municipalities committed to the values upheld by demonstrators at the time. In addition to the campaign for the right to housing, these movements were linked to platforms for the remunicipalisation of public services, neighbourhood associations, protests against property speculation and the feminist movement. Their political project was based on the idea of “convergence”, which implied moving beyond the traditional party structure (which appeared to be undergoing a crisis) to open up a wider, plural space where activists and non-partisans would join forces with more traditional left-wing parties. This convergence was intended to be a step towards a “new policy” – one that was no longer based on a pact to divvy up power, but one that aims to create a new democratic space focussed on collective objectives – objectives which already featured in the demands of urban social movements.
Right from the outset, this proposal for “democratic radicalism”, largely inspired by 15M, wanted to use a feminist lens as a lever to transform the traditional political structure. Feminist thought and proposals had already featured prominently in the public arena during 15M. The municipalist movement wanted to take up where it had left off and integrate this aspect. This approach, along with historical protests and other combining factors, would give way to a feminist movement which swept through society like a tidal wave over the following years. This phenomenon has also taken off in different countries around the world. Emancipatory politics can’t be understood without taking this groundwork into account.
Thus, the municipalist movement’s demand to “feminise politics” did not only mean putting women on the front line, but rather involved a commitment to profoundly change the way we do politics and overhaul the institutions themselves. According to ex-Chancellor of Ahora Madrid, Montserrat Garcelán, “masculine” politics implies hierarchy, obsession with authority and power. In other words, validating the idea that those who rule govern others; politics as a job for experts. However, if feminism has taught us anything, it is that “personal is political” – and, from there, from the oppressions that run through us, to change ourselves and change the world. This involves a transformative agenda and radical democratisation of the political system, which requires creating more horizontal organisational structures and processes of deliberation and collective decision-making.
Municipalism’s slogan could be: “Democracy begins with what is close to us”. And this proposal for change, based on a local approach, is where the true potential of feminist municipalism lies. Thus, the municipalist programmes were drawn up using participatory processes which made it possible to gather the experience of citizens and social movements about their cities and their municipalities. This fit well with the revolution advocating a feminist economy: putting institutions at the service of people and not markets. In other words, the main objective of an economy is not to make profits, but rather to create a new utopia; a utopia committed to ensuring the services required for life and social reproduction. This requires reclaiming basic services such as water, electricity and public transport, as well as fundamental social services like education and health. Moreover, it involves creating a different relationship with our natural environment and ensuring we have the means to conserve it. Ultimately, it is a programme that aims to transform local governments from niche market managers – where public investments are geared towards generating profits for companies – to people committed to attending to citizens’ needs.
We are aware that such a programme is no mean feat. The experiences and history of municipalism have shown that unravelling the fabric of local power, and its alliance with corporate power, entails fierce political confrontations. Supporting local governments is not enough – some, such as Madrid’s, have already lost. During this process we discovered how important it is to forge alliances with civil society and even to promote and build political communities that support proposals for institutional change. There are still ongoing battles, such as that in Barcelona, which depend on the forces that we are able to summon together. It is clear that we need to be prepared for the battles ahead.
This article is part of the series Cities versus Multinationals by the European Network of Corporate Observatories (ENCO)