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Economic and Political Democracy for the City: an Interview with Ana Méndez de Andés

Ana Méndez de Andés; youtube screenshot.


Many thanks to our comradely internet platform Masina in Serbia for permitting us to republish this interview.

Six years ago a wave of demonstrations broke out throughout Spain. What started as a protest against the widespread political corruption and the lack of “real” democracy soon spread to millions of people challenging the current political and economic order. This movement will have later come to be known as the Indignados, or the 15M movement. The main three slogans of the May 15, that were supported by almost 80% of the population, were: “You call it a democracy – but it’s not”, “It’s not a crisis, it’s a scam”, “We are not merchandise in the hands of the politicians and the bankers.”

By that time the Spanish government’s decision to apply the directives pushed by the EU after the global market crash in 2008, or, in other words – to bail out banks and cut public spending – had caused a major national economic crisis. By 2011 unemployment had risen to 25% among the overall population, or 50% among the youth. Almost a third of children (27%) were living under the poverty line, and about 1.7 million families had no one in work.

The 15M movement represented a very heterogeneous combination of initiatives and demands. The most relevant were the so-called “tides”, where an unprecedented number of people mobilized around issues related with privatization of education and health, housing, labour… Apart from using public space to reject the government’s austerity politics, the 15M camps turned into an exercise of radical democracy through massive assemblies. They were the seed of citizens’ networks of support to the needy and the vulnerable.

This insurgent and destituent “climate”, that since 2011 brought together old and new social organizations as well as people that had never considered themselves to be“politicized” still has a large influence on Spanish politics and social life. 2014 saw the forming of Podemos, which has in the meantime evolved into a significant political party. That same year Ada Colau (former spokeswoman of the anti-eviction movement La PAH) became mayor of Barcelona, the municipalist platform Ganemos Madrid entered the city government in Madrid, and La PAH grew into the biggest anti-eviction movement in Europe. Masina had a chance to talk with Ana Méndez de Andés, architect, theoretician, activist and one of the co-founders of Ganemos Madrid, about the contemporary political dynamics in Spain.

How do you explain such high levels of political mobilisation in Spain? There are similar problems in other regions, such as the Balkans – a devastating level of unemployment and impoverishment, for instance – but people lost most of their enthusiasm and wish to participate in politics. Does the answer lie in the sharp deterioration of the living standard that the Spanish people experienced after a 15 years long prosperity in the early two-thousands?

One thing we like to look at when we try to understand where the 15M, and later the municipalist movement came from is what kind of mobilisations took place in Spain during the last 15 years. There are some common characteristics that we find relevant. In many cases (an environmental catastrophe in Galicia, or the bombings in Madrid, the war in Iraq, or the first housing crisis in the early 2000s) the civil society recognized that the government wasn’t addressing the real source of the problem. In each of these cases there was a strong sense of self-organisation coupled with a quite unique cultural component. They included people from cultural production who knew how to use actions, images and narratives to produce a powerful impact on people’s imagination. Thanks to this, the mobilizations and protests could include a broad spectrum of people, and were not directed by any political party or traditional trade unions.

Another relevant aspect is that the older social movements in Spain have built strong country-wide networks in the last years. They kept their level of autonomy, together with a common understanding of priorities and values. They shared knowledge, created common actions and defined common goals. Also, they showed a capacity of being transversal. The feminist movement, for example, shares priorities with the ecologists, and the struggles against precarity co-worked with the open culture initiatives.

A lot of self-organised movements, which we call tides, took part in this popular revolt (a much used Twitter hashtag at that time was #Spanishrevolution). They were sometimes organised in collaboration with the unions, sometimes acted very independently, but always involved self-organized assemblies. For example, the anti-eviction movement called Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca (La PAH) was very strong and managed to make explicit what was the link between the people not being able to pay back their mortgages and the scam called crisis: how the banks, developers, and politicians were responsible for the situation. This is, by the way, what made Ada Colau (now the mayor of Barcelona) a very recognisable citizen-based political figure. The May 15th movement started with demonstrations related to the local elections, but it escalated into a challenge to the whole system very fast. It addressed a very strong critique to the democratic system, and also to the economic system. Nevertheless, there was also a general feeling that this wave of mobilisations had its limit.

In what sense?

For instance, in the most successful week the anti-eviction movement could stop about a 20-30 evictions, while in 2011, at the peak of the crisis, there were more than one thousand evictions a week. In total, the PAH has prevented more than 2.000 evictions, what is a great success, but according to different calculations, there has been more than 700.000 since the crisis started. It was obvious that it would be very difficult to scale this up.

More importantly, it was obvious that the political climate had changed. In previous times you could expect that a social movement would make a demand and if the demand was strong, articulated, visible, solid, and it had support, the government would have to listen to you. This is not true anymore, this doesn’t apply. The articulation between the political powers and the economic powers against the people has gotten terribly strong. Our experience in Spain is that after the biggest mobilisation we have seen (at least in my life) the government still did what it wanted.

Why was that so?

Partly because in a representative democracy there is no way to have any control of the government besides the elections, and in the elections there was no real alternative.

So, in the Spanish case a part of the problem was the fact that it was a two-party system?

That’s not so clear-cut, it’s not so strong as in the USA or UK. The system allows more than two parties, so there have been other coalitions in the national government; and there have been other parties in the regional parliaments… But still, there were two main options for the whole country, and there is no big difference in economic terms between the two parties. For example, the party that changed the constitution and put in a constitutional demand that we pay the debt, actually incorporating the demands of the TROIKA, was the Socialist Party.

In 2015 we felt a political crisis, reflected in the lack of electoral alternatives. They were playing the game and there was no one to change the game.

What is it that changed so that people can no more influence their governments?

It’s the same as everywhere else. It’s the pressure from financial multinationals, it’s the pressure from the economic and political powers inside the country as well, the established powers, but it’s also the self-legitimation of the political system whose main actors don’t have the common good or the general interest in their minds.

And they might honestly think that sometimes things could get even worse if they made certain decisions that don’t comply with the requests of those powers, because the backlash from the powerful agents beyond Spain would leave the people worse off.

Nevertheless, the problem is that their basic concept of what is “good “ or “bad” for the country is wrong. This is the point. This is what May 15th made clear. Guys, you are playing the game, but you are not doing the things so that the inhabitants of this territory live better. We can admit that you are coping with all these decisions where the margin of action is narrow, for sure, but you are not pushing this envelope.

That’s why when Podemos’ political proposition to go to the European Elections got out in 2014 it sparked the imagination of people. Finally, the people could vote for someone else. But not someone that is just another option from the same menu, but someone that is conceptualising politics in another way, and who is independent from the banks. Unlike all other political parties, PODEMOS still has no debt in the banks.

The collective I co-founded, the Observatorio Metropolitano, which had been active for 10 years, had at the time written a book called the Municipalist wager. We have been working on it since autumn 2013, and it was published in May 2014, the day after the European election in which Podemos – to everybody’s surprise – got five seats and half a million votes. The book was appealing to this possibility of changing the political game that Podemos did made as a test at the European level. But our political proposal of the municipalism was not based on a sense of the municipalist level as the local branch of the national political project. We proposed something more similar to the experience of the May 15th with different platforms in different places that could develop a federation of local initiatives to gain national – and international – power.

How did you put your ideas into practice, at the local elections?

In Madrid, we made a call in June 2014, in a meeting called Municipalia. There we proposed to participate at the local elections in Madrid. The people in Barcelona, with Ada Colau, had already done the same. Ganemos Madrid and other initiatives followed a f¡ve-point method: we developed a proposal and gathered support for a program that accentuated how we want to transform the city following the demands of the 15M, by claiming more economic and political democracy. After some hesitation and negotiations, Podemos accepted the invitation of Ganemos to participate in a joint platform called Ahora Madrid. Together, we formed a confluence that entered the city parliament and won the government with Manuela Carmena as mayor, thus gaining the capacity to take control of some of the things that shape the life of people.

What things, more specifically?

The most relevant thing in my opinion is that we are fighting austerity by rejecting the idea that there is a limit to the budget, which is actually a fiscal compound from the EU.

One of the protests of the organization La PAH / Facebook.

In what way? Fighting austerity sounds like a crucial thing.

To be honest, the city doesn’t control most of the main public services like education (only kindergartens) or health, only emergencies. Those are controlled on the regional level. But, we transferred a lot of the budget to the social services, so that we are making bigger social provision.

What happens also is that the city like Madrid never spends its entire budget. Basically, we use this to push for a budget that is above the fiscal compound, but at the end of the year we almost fit in the fiscal compound, and get 80% of the things done. This is a technicality, but we have used it to our advantage so far, although we fought with the Minister of economy to get it done. Madrid has a budget of 5 000 000 000 Euros, which is a lot. It gives us leverage in negotiations with the government.

But, we are also pushing for a change in the imaginary. We don’t say anymore “we don’t have money for this”, or “we have to cut on that”. The question is what you want to spend the money on. Do you want to spend public money on super-big infrastructure, that usually means giving away public money to private entrepreneurs in the civic construction sector, or do you want to spend it on social service and renovating the local infrastructure? We have invested 100 million Euros in a participatory budget. We ask people what they think needs to be done in their own neighbourhoods, but also at the city scale.

We have changed the mentality in Madrid. For example, Madrid used to think of itself as a city where the people were using the car for everything. We have effectively introduced measures to restrict the use of cars because of high pollution. These things are possible because governments still have an incredible symbolic capital even when they don’t have much financial capital. When we say something people will listen to us. You start to publish the numbers about pollution, and people begin to realize that this is connected to kids and elderly people falling sick, for example.

And how about smaller municipalities?

Their problem is different. There are a lot of municipalities that have a bigger problem of debt. Madrid has the biggest debt in total, but it also has money to cover it. The smaller municipalities have basically been working on that, and reverting some privatisations that were a financial plunder.

For example in Oviedo the municipalist platform is formed by a bunch of activists that come from a squatted social centre. They said that they would had to re-municipalize the service for tax collecting, and they actually did, although the private company that used to do it had a close connection with the government. They are now saving 4 million Euros a year!

How did they manage to do it?

They just didn’t prolong the contract. A lot of these contracts are short-term, and when come to an end the privatization can be reverted. But the privatization of services sometimes also mean that the administration loses the practical knowledge of how to do things, so there is much preparation before you can reassume certain tasks.

That is what happened in Terassa when they re-municipalised the water. An activist platform, together with the local municipalist, that is on the opposition proposed and developed a plan to re-municipalise the water, which the government accepted. They are now also creating an Observatorio del Agua with the civic agents to do a mix of governance of the new public company. The company directors will take the more technical decisions, but the executive political decisions will be taken by a board that includes agents from the social field. It’s a co-management that hasn’t been implemented yet, but is super interesting.

A few weeks ago you presented the Geographical Political Atlas of the Change in Spain. What is that about?

The Atlas of Change features 75 different public policies developed by 18 municipalities in Spain, and a map of 25 municipalist platforms that were presented in the local elections in 2015, not only in Barcelona and Madrid, but also La Coruña, Zaragoza, Santiago de Compostela, Cádiz or Palma, where the municipalist platforms have won the government by themselves. Then, there are coalitions in places like Valencia, Oviedo or Valladolid, just to name some of the main cities in Spain. We have been talking about putting together the work that a lot of municipalities in Spain have been doing for a long time now.

Were these public policies presented by different organisations?

Each organisation in each territory is different. The agreements that had led to the platforms were different, and the composition of the platforms is different. There are places where Podemos is very strong; there are places where the social movements have a more important role.

In all of them the negotiations varied, but all these platform share five characteristics that are like the DNA of this municipalist process. Firstly, we all went through a process of validation, got recognised on the part of the citizens. For example, we gathered 30 000 signatures online. We said that we wanted to represent the people, and asked for their support. Then we all had a participatory program, so the program was done in an open way often combining physical meeting with online platforms. At the same time, we developed open primaries. In Madrid we adopted the Dowdall system that is very fair for the less voted lists and allows them representation. All people that were in the lists signed an ethical code that limited salaries and teems in office, and ensure transparency and measures against corruption. Last but not least, we gathered the money for the electoral campaign through micro-credits and (very small part = donations). We gave the money back when we were paid by the government the allowance we were entitled, that depends on the number of seats. Our final budget was less than 200.000 euros. To give you an idea, the conservative party spent almost 2 million.

Ana Méndez de Andés during the presentation in CZKD space; Photo: Dušan Rajić

When you say “we”, who are you thinking of, more specifically?

It’s difficult to say, sometimes is “we” the government, as I was advisor to the City Council for two years, and I still feel part of it. Sometimes it’s our own collective, called M129. But most of the time, “we” is the people who took part in the demonstrations in 2011, who have been working in different fields to change the political situation and who are now dedicated to creating a municipalist political alternative.

Do you have a consensus in all those overlapping movements that what you fight for are the commons, that the commons are the chosen category?

We don’t. When we were doing the program we had an open, democratic discussion about it, which was never solved. We knew that we had to re-municipalise the services, but that this wouldn’t be enough. We had to create alternatives. The representatives of the social movements, unions and parties coming from the communist tradition were in favour of the state. The rest of us opposed this view because the state is hierarchical, it relies on the representation of singular things, which makes it a Leviatanite, it divides the society into categories to make governance feasible , it’s not able to deal with it as a complex form, which makes it segmentatory, it works with black and white, inside and out concepts, so its binary. So it’s a hierarchical, Leviatanitic, segmentatory and binary system that the society cannot fit in. And one of the tasks of the municipalist project is to challenge this type or institutional organization and create spaces with a collective production. This is our position – but we come from social centres, cooperatives, groups fighting in favour of the commons. The traditional Left, of course, says everything has to be public. In the end we agreed to disagree, but we had a lot of things done together.

Did you lose something by entering parliamentary politics?

What we have lost because we entered the institutions is the capacity of being out there. The city hall in Madrid is the old main post office – it’s name was the Communications Palace, so we call it “the Palace”. The time and the density of activities there are so different from the rest of the world. I was the advisor of the secretary of culture for the city of Madrid for three years, and we were working 14 hours a day.

Being in the government and having a possibility to influence things structurally is an incredible job. But your capacity to absorb, and to relate and to have attention to something else gets diminished, also because of a very metabolic, physical capacity of our bodies and minds.

We are dealing with a system that is highly neurotic, almost psychopath, and very cynical. When you put normal people in such a system people suffer. The comrades often demand on the people in the institutions not to make mistake, not to be afraid, tired or sad ever. Normal people cannot live up to such expectations.

That’s why in the end you also see some contradictions. We have to learn for ourselves that nobody is going to be the solution, and it is something that the social movements find very hard to accept. It is difficult to give up the idea that there is someone out there with the power to solve magically your problems, just by giving an order. Sometimes is like that, but most of the time, every decision involves lots of work. Sometimes the people on the inside even don’t know how to deal with something, simply because we haven’t done it before, or because we want to do things that have never been done before. So, we try. And sometimes we fail. But in this disparity of expectations, I’m afraid that we might be losing this capacity to be transversal and also the capacity to be able to listen, form both sides.

Going through the public policies described in the Atlas del Cambio (Atlas of Change) I realised how much have been achieved in these four years! Not only in terms of programs and projects that have been realized; the municipalist governments have been able to create new commons senses, help build citizen power capacity, and transform some very deep logics. Of course, the institutional action without social mobilization won’t reach much in the long term (we have seen this with the Green Party in Germany, or in the progressive governments in Latin America), and the force of the old financial and political powers resistance are only starting. Nevertheless, I am convinced that if we can keep, as mayor Ada Colau says, one foot in the institutions and a thousand more outside, and articulate the city governments around national and supra-national challenges, such as climate change, the municipalist wager can be a tool to develop certain aspects of the feminism, ecologist and the commons-movements, which are the main political proposal in this century.