By Bernardo Guitierrez

Madrid, Barcelona and other major Spanish cities are now governed by independent citizen fronts called “confluences.” Ahora Madrid, Barcelona en Comú, Zaragoza en Común and La Marea Atlántica (A Coruña) are confluences weaved together by the M15-Indignados social ecosystem. Other political parties, like Podemos and Equo, have joined these confluences while leaving political party logic at the door. The results from Spain’s latest local elections, which saw the decline of the conservative Partido Popular, have the potential of modifying the course of representative democracy as we know it. 

The Municipalist Wager

“Whatever may happen in the European

[parliamentary] elections will be a warning shot for the municipal elections. This will be a test by fire, for movements whose ambitions are to storm institutions.” This was the pronouncement of Traficantes de Sueños, an influential cooperative, publisher, and bookstore in Madrid, in their May 2014 course Asaltar los cielos. The objective of the course was strategically outlined as: “Brainstorming and designing a municipalist effort capable of encompassing key elements such as how to build true democracy.”

In other words, to plan the leap from the public occupations of squares during M15 of 2011 to political institutions. The challenge was to turn the battle cry “They don’t represent us” into “We represent ourselves.”

The municipalist effort was well underway before the Podemos tsunami – a new political party cobbled together for the European elections of May 25, 2014 – surprisingly gained five seats in European Parliament. Podemos had ruffled some feathers among those who claimed it was hurrying its “assault on institutions” or those frightened by its supposedly aggressive narrative. The day after the elections, as though following a previously laid-out plan, The Municipalist Wager was published by the Observatorio Municipal de Madrid.

The book fleshes out its subtitle (“the political begins with proximity”) with a historical introduction from the Greek agora to the Spanish cantonalismo of the XIX century, passing through the communes and free towns of the Second Spanish Republic, from the Dutch Provo to the German Greens and the Zapatista Councils of Good Government. Published copyleft, the book is more than simply a book; it is a highly adaptable device. The Metropolitan Monitor of Madrid recommended that cities across Spain adapt chapter 4 (focused on Madrid) to their own local context. In the words of Emmanuel Rodríguez, one of the writers of The Municipalist Wager, “The national elections seemed out of our grasp. The municipal elections seemed more approachable, they could be tackled without a centralized party machinery.”

The book concludes with a chapter titled For a Democratic Municipalism, and states: “Democracy loses most of its substance if it doesn’t establish areas for direct decision-making where ordinary people can exercise a certain degree of self-governing.” The challenge was set. The Municipalist Wager was a convergence inspired by EnRed, a proposal drafted in early 2013 by social movements linked to M15 for the open organization of the city of Madrid, adopting free culture and a return to the commons as its guiding principles.

The municipalist effort was also seen as an antidote to the hurricane of Podemos. EnRed is consensus-based with open assemblies and occupied squares, whereas Podemos represents the assault on institutions and political hegemony. The attempt to unite these different socio-political flows was branded “confluence.” A confluence is something very different from a traditional political coalition, a popular front, or a popular unity candidacy. It was something completely new, and non-existent just a year prior.

No one could have imagined that a confluence branded Ahora Madrid would end up displacing the conservative Partido Popular (PP) from Madrid’s city hall. How did this happen? How were these confluences that took power in some of the biggest cities in Spain after the May 24 elections weaved together?

<img class="wp-image-11495 size-large" src="×682 xenical 120.jpg” alt=”Ada Colau addresses the crowd at Barcelona en Comú’s election night celebration. Picture by Robert Pluma” width=”669″ height=”446″ srcset=”×682.jpg 1024w,×200.jpg 300w” sizes=”(max-width: 669px) 100vw, 669px” />

Ada Colau addresses the crowd at Barcelona en Comú’s election night celebration. Picture by Robert Pluma

The Electoral Seism

A headline in Le Monde employed the perfect metaphor to describe last month’s municipal election results, “Political Earthquake in Spain.” However, it’s impossible to draw a linear interpretation, and simplifying is impossible. Better said, it’s hard to find clear winners and losers at first glance. The first contradiction: the conservative Partido Popular, despite being the single party to win the most votes, suffered the greatest defeat. The PP lost its majority in 500 cities, and in almost every major Spanish city including Madrid, Valencia and many other capitals. It lost, in turn, its majority in almost every region, which will now be governed by left wing and/or citizen-led alliances.

The most symbolic loss is found in the Community of Valencia. The two-party system there has been severely shaken – the sum of PP together with Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE), Spain’s traditional socialist party, barely reaching a combined 52% of votes – but it survived thanks to rural and elderly voters. The PSOE did not die; it lost votes but it recovered regions like Asturias and Extremadura. The party will govern through agreements in many other regions and cities.

The bigger picture, though, is that Podemos consolidated itself as the third and key political force in the region, despite performing slightly below expectations by only garnering 14% of the vote. Ciudadanos, extolled by the media as the centrist alternative to the “bolivarian” Podemos, failed to take off with under 10% of votes. Where is, then, the great political earthquake evoked by Le Monde? It lays in the results of municipal elections that are defined not so much by who loses but by who wins. The political tremor carried the signature of the confluence – an ecosystem of post-parties that is already assuming governance in some of the countries major cities, from Madrid and Barcelona to Zaragoza, Cádiz and A Coruña among others.

The interpretations of the electoral earthquake are confusing, and often times contradictory. Spanish conservative media mostly ignored the confluence phenomenon, and they continue to affirm that Podemos “has won nothing.” Meanwhile, international media paints it as though Podemos has triumphed in cities like Madrid and Barcelona while crediting Pablo Iglesias, the undeniable leader of the formation, with the municipal success of “the left.”

These media outlets keep defining the municipal confluences as “leftist fronts.” Owen Jones, in his article for The Guardian, recommends that the British left learn Spain: “It’s about attitude and approach, otherwise we are just debating which self-imposed ghetto from which we rant impotently,” he writes.

But everything is more complex and less linear, less dichotomous, than the pundits would have us believe. The left-right axis is not dead, but its grasp on power is slipping. Yet this fact alone cannot explain the emergence of these citizen-driven groups. The confluences, especially in Madrid, cannot be reduced to a “united left front.”

“More complexity, please,” wrote Antón Losada in Spain’s El Diario, “after one of the most superficial, frivolous, and simple-minded campaigns in living memory. In the M24 elections people responded by voting for complexity, subtlety and nuances. Facing ‘for dummies’ type of proposals that compelled people to choose between being ‘with me’ or ‘against me,’ voters leaned towards teaching all the candidates and all the political forces that politics must be practiced the same way reality is shaped: diverse, polyhedral and sometimes contradictory.”

Spaniards didn’t massively vote for PP or PSOE. Nor did they exactly vote for the opposite. It’s true, voters turned towards the left, generally speaking, betting on change. But the most important consequence to occur is that the M24 elections disrupted the binary and antagonistic logic of the traditional political system.

The true novelty of the democratic, seismic shift lays in the complex and plural makeup of the confluences. In Valencia, after the election, Valencia en Comú supported Compromís to form a governing coalition that took City Hall. Meanwhile, the confluences are reformulating the governments of the working class belt surrounding Spain’s largest cities, Madrid and Barcelona.

A few days after the elections, Pablo Iglesias, in another narrative stroke of his particular Game of Thrones, reminded people that the confluences were also a huge bet for Podemos – and that Podemos is not merely a party but “an instrument for change.” What role did Podemos play in the municipal seism that took place in Spain? How do the citizen confluences like Barcelona en Comú or Ahora Madrid relate to Podemos? What kind of conversation exists between citizens, social movements, M15-Indignados, confluences, and Podemos?

In May 2014, no one could have imagined that the narrative, organizational and emotional wave Podemos unleashed would turn Spanish politics upside down in just a few months. No one dreamed that a municipalist movement would have consolidated itself throughout Spain in such a fulminating way – let alone that the multiple processes would end up getting along and converging.

Only a few people understood a tweet from Traficantes de Sueños (@traficantes2010) on June 3, 2014, reminding the now-famous leaders of Podemos that a municipalist plan was already on the table:

“The Municipalist Wager” #book prepare the next assault. #FreeDownload CC @ahorapodemos

June 15, 2014, some weeks after the publication of “The Municipalist Wager,” the Guanyem Barcelona Manifesto was published. “We don’t want either a party coalition or a mere alphabet soup. We want to avoid old party logics and rather build new spaces that go beyond the arithmetic addition of the component parts,” it read.

Guanyem Barcelona was initiative led by Ada Colau, the spokesperson for the Platform of People Affected by Mortgages (PAH) – and now, as of last month, the mayor of Barcelona. The group’s stated purpose was “winning the mayor’s office in Barcelona” by creating a confluence of majorities. Guanyem, which in Catalan stands for “let’s win,” latched on to the call for empowerment ignited by Podemos. “If we organize around more specific goals and practices, we will be able to reach objectives that seemed impossible,” declared the manifesto.

After Guanyem came the platform EnRed, within which organizations like Traficantes de Sueños, Observatorio Metropolitano, Juventud Sin Futuro (a key actor in the M15-Indignados movement) and Patio Maravillas (an occupied self-managed social center in Madrid) concocted a municipalist plan that quickly mutated into Municipalia. An open meeting on June 28 in MediaLab Prado in Madrid opened the door to a name change: Ganemos (“let’s win”). All of a sudden different Ganemos initiatives sprouted in neighborhood across the city and in dozens of cities throughout Spain.

“During the past few months, we have been slowing cooking up the community agreements, primaries processes and programs that will make democratic citizen candidacies viable, rooting themselves in new organizational forms that are capable of creating a politics that is responsive to the social and political fabric of each local community,” wrote Pablo Carmona, one of the brains of the Municipalist Plan, and now a city councilman for Ahora Madrid.

Agreements, assemblies, enthusiasm and tensions simmered with a new sense of urgency. In 2014, participants in the M15 neighborhood assemblies had opened Podemos’ thematic and regional circles, the most celebrated decentralized structure within the party. Many people were motivated by the neighborhood wave of Ganemos, so they started opening nodes of their own. And so began the weaving together of the decentralized web that would later become Ahora Madrid.

“The squares showed the high level of preparation that we have regarding the management of very complex situations, with great intelligence, but also with tenderness, active listening and proximity,” claimed Alberto Nanclares, a collaborator in Ganemos and the Movimiento de Liberación Gráfica de Madrid (Madrid Graphic Liberation Movement), which was a key actor in the final stages of the Ahora Madrid campaign. The citizen practices, activated in 2011 by the Indignados, were the constant beacon of inspiration.

“The forms of cooperation of network movements no longer lay on big unitarian ideological dogmas, but rather on connecting those practices where the reconquest of our rights and of what is common is exercised,” wrote Arnau Monty in his 2013 article “The Mutations of the M15 Network Movement.”

The imaginative methods used by Ganemos Madrid proved extraordinarily powerful. “Take the city, lead by obeying (disobeying),” published by Ganemos Madrid in June 2014, was an inspiring collective roadmap. It remixed the Zapatista practice of leading by obeying with the massive civil disobedience demonstrated by M15. The 2011 slogan, “Take the street” mutated into “Take your city institutions.” The almost invisible work of assemblies and networks emerged into a nimble, lateral and liquid form of politics – a real politics. The spatial ingredient completed the assemblage: territorial and hyper-local, bottom-up and outside-in.

The five principles of confluence in Ganemos worked metaphorically as the Four Freedoms of Free Software: a brief ethical framework from which to build processes by sharing code and practices. It’s worth reading them carefully:

1) Principle of Confluence: do not try to generate a new structure, but rather favor the coordination of already existing collective work.

2) Principle of Promotion: favor the development of tools and spaces of territorial cooperation in those places where they don’t exist.

3) Principle of Sustainability: think of mechanisms of participation that are not only sustainable for activists, but more importantly for average citizens.

4) Principle of Inclusiveness: any launched initiative should always focus on and seek the participation of the general citizenry and not only the movement’s internal composition.

5) Principle of Co-organization: do not consider citizenship as the exclusive space for consultation or validation but rather support the tools that enable everyone who wishes to organize, participate and create binding decisions.

The Ganemos wave grew quickly, multiplying and mutating during the summer of 2014. Free software logic shared computer code repositories and networked cooperation eased the expansion. Guanyem Barcelona published a Useful Guide to create a Guanyem / Ganemos. Collective intelligence and the local needs of each city reconfigured the shape of each confluence. Ahora Madrid, for instance, would take advantage of the source code for Zaragoza en Común’s digital platform to elaborate their own program. A few days before the elections, Pablo Soto, who was responsible for digital participation in Ahora Madrid and is currently a city councilman, affirmed that “implementing participatory mechanisms for citizens means expropriating power from representatives, it is an act of de-representation.”

How did these confluences evolve? The effectiveness of the adventure, according to journalist and Ganemos Madrid participant Olga Rodríguez, depended on finding “spaces that could accommodate all of us who have suffered from cutbacks, in order to restore democracy and simple values such as solidarity.”

For its part, Podemos, which was relentlessly being attacked by big corporate media, finalized its secret “one girl” strategy: find an independent and experienced woman candidate for the confluence in Madrid. After many refusals, Jesús Montero, Podemos’ General Secretary in Madrid, convinced the ex-judge Manuela Carmena to become the mayoral candidate for Ahora Madrid. Once on the campaign trail, Manuela would repeat over and over again that she had “nothing to do with Podemos.” Without that distance the success achieved by Ahora Madrid would have been impossible.

Nobody suspected that the mutation of municipalist initials would become so dizzying. In many cases, the blame fell on the opportunism of the old political parties, which preemptively trademarked the brand Ganemos all throughout Spain, with the complicity of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. In response, Guanyem Barcelona became Barcelona en Comú. In Galicia, the Mareas Atlánticas (Atlantic Tides) and Compostela Aberta were consolidated. Somos Oviedo (We are Oviedo) emerged in Asturias, and Por Cadiz Sí Se Puede (For Cádiz Yes We Can) in Cádiz. The name of the confluences was the least of their worries. The spirit imbued hundreds of campaigns with words such as “win,” “now,” “change” or “common.” The choice of legal format, as the journalist Aitor Rivero explained, was up to each city: “group of voters” and “instrumental parties” were the most used.

Ahora Madrid was officially presented on March 6 as the instrumental party formed by this confluence of citizen movements, associations and parties (Podemos, Equo and dissidents from Izquierda Unida, among others). It was a post-party in all respects. There was no budget. Primary elections, a non-negotiable condition for Ahora Madrid, were yet to be held. The list of candidates that won the primary, headed by Manuela Carmena, gave a press conference on March 24. The ex-magistrate Manuela was a perfect unknown. There were 60 days left before the elections. Few thought that Ahora Madrid could conquer the local government in Madrid.


Manuela Carmena Signs at Rally

An Ahora Madrid “open mic” rally a week before the elections. Manuala Carmena was there candidate for Mayor. Photo by Robert Pluma

Manuela the muse

With less than two weeks left before the May 24 elections, the citizen overflow arrived. The Graphic Liberation Movements in Barcelona and Madrid were the first to do their part, unleashing an impressive stream of posters brandishing Manuela’s image. Then the platform #MadridConManuela blew up in popularity with an inclusive, thrilling and contagious campaign. Dismantling people’s fear of the unknown, it turned Manuela Carmena into a pop muse and undid the knot weaved by corporate media against Ahora Madrid. “Manuela, the enlightened muse,” stated El País.

When the mainstream media persisted in emphasizing the candidate’s pop persona, the hashtag and narrative #SomosManuela (#WeAreManuela) emerged, becoming a national trending topic. Manuela Carmena had become a mask of the multitude – a candidate that could be appropriated by anyone. #SomosManuela overflowed, decentralized the campaign, infected people with enthusiasm for change, and captivated Madrid. Everyone, the whole country, was Manuela.

By this time, Ahora Madrid’s official campaign was no longer setting the pace, but was one more layer within a polyphonic and choral ensemble of narratives, strategies and actions. The poetic rally celebrated on May 19 in Plaza Tirso de Molina in Madrid became another metaphor of the popular “overflow.” “Neither the communication managers of Ahora Madrid, nor the [TV] anchors and talking heads mentioned it, while Plaza Tirso de Molina was crowded with people listening to poems, without stump speeches but with highly political content,” affirmed Rubén Caravaca, of the M15 assembly of Los Austrias neighborhood, to Ahora Madrid Cultura.

Felipe Gil and Francisco Jurado, in Winning by Overflowing, laid out this new reality that defied the conventional wisdom of the political spin doctors, campaign consultants and party machines. In their article, they speak of inconclusive and unfinished narratives, of open prototypes and mutant identities. And they single out the key for all the political confluences that emerged and would emerge: “to let oneself trust and be invaded by an uncontrolled collective construction.” Mayo Fuster, a researcher in collaborative culture, also highlighted this point: “The key concept here is overflow, which refers to the capacity to loose control over a process and to operate freely during the process of mobilization.”

Manuela Carmena’s citizen-led campaign was based on a network system of people, a human ecosystem that echoes the famous definition of “Autopoiesis” formulated by the Chilean biologists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela in 1972: the mechanism that favors the self organized replication of living organisms. From the autopoiesis of living cells to the autopoiesis of a self-organized and indignant citizenry since 2011; and from the autopoiesis of nodes in Ahora Madrid to the mitopoiesis, or process of collective myth creation: citizens transformed Manuela Carmena into a common body-desire. “The pro Manuela campaign is a story that wouldn’t have allowed for any other transmitter than the citizenry itself, it couldn’t be managed by a typical structure,” affirms Nacho Padilla, one of the co-founders of the Madrid platform.

Cities in Spain currently governed by "Confluence" coalitions.

Cities in Spain currently governed by “Confluence” coalitions.

What’s next?

A political earthquake: for the parties, for the old marketing establishment, for the traditional left. And a systemic earthquake for social movements. “Social movements need to have their own life and autonomy, they need to become critical mass. We need to end with the figure of crony association,” said Rafael Peña of Compostela Aberta.

And how does Podemos fit into this new socio-political picture? Will a confluence of different political and social forces be possible in November’s general election? The success of these laboratories of confluences, of which Podemos is a key engine, have led many to dream of a national citizen-led confluence for Spain’s general elections. “Yes we can, but not only with Podemos,” writes Isaac Rosa. Alberto Garzón, whose name was thrown around as the potential presidential candidate of Izquierda Unida (United Left), now openly defends the plan: “Not only are the upcoming elections at stake, but also future generations.” GANEMOS is better than PODEMOS is the new collective mantra.

“What is playing out in Madrid and Barcelona in the municipal [elections] has a connection and correlation with changes that have come here to stay,” asserts David Arenal, who has been involved with M15, Ganemos and Ahora Madrid. Meanwhile, Raúl Sánchez Cedillo of the Commons Foundation points to Ahora Madrid as the model to be followed: “Only one case illustrates that this type of municipalism gains more than Podemos, and that’s Ahora Madrid. An inconceivable experience, if it wasn’t for the work and tenacity of Municipalia in the first place and later Ganemos Madrid.”

Barcelona en Comú received 25% of the votes in the Catalan capital, with Izquierda Unida at the heart of the confluence. The 32% of the votes gained by Ahora Madrid, without the official support of Izquierda Unida and with much less time than their Catalan counterparts, opened hopeful horizons.

If M15-Indignados inaugurated a new social grammar, the municipal election results have created a new political ecosystem – an ecosystem in which different life forms cohabitate interdependently, some fluidly while others more defined. We can’t talk about Podemos without discussing these confluences. We can’t explain Ahora Madrid without Podemos. In a hypothetical national confluence, Podemos could become the driving engine of change. The form and narrative will be that of the confluences. The citizen nodes and social movements will be autopoietic cells that keep the ecosystem alive.

In the meantime, Manuela Carmena proves with each gesture that a different form of politics is possible. She takes public transit, rides her bike, doesn’t attack her enemies. She Listens. One of her tweets on election night plainly sums up the aggregating spirit of these new confluences: “One hour left. Don’t be scared, nor allow others to frighten you. Happiness is our only revenge. Participate and let’s move forward #Elections2015.”

Translated from the Spanish by Pablo Benson and Mateo Fernández-Muro.

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