Lessons From Barcelona’s 8-Year Experiment in Radical Governance
“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?
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.
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 euros 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 upcoming 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.
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 euros (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 euros during her first year in office, her predecessor Xavier Trias had regularly pocketed 140,000 euros 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.
Mark Engler is a writer based in Philadelphia, an editorial board member at Dissent, and co-author of "This Is An Uprising: How Nonviolent Revolt Is Shaping the Twenty-first Century" (Nation Books). He can be reached via the website www.DemocracyUprising.com.
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