New social movements are using the city as an arena for a different kind of politics and new forms of cooperation. In this interview, Manuela Zechner and Bue Rübner Hansen discuss how cities can become levers against the central government and the EU, and why local politics is more important today than ever before.

The two of you have participated in several recent political experiments in Barcelona. There and in many other cities in Spain, the left and social movements have been focusing on the city as a space for activism and political work. How did this come about?

Manuela Zechner: A lot of the organising aimed at reclaiming municipal institutions started from Barcelona. There, you have the history of the Spanish civil war, where defending the pride of the neighbourhoods traditionally played a very particular role. This took the form of the workers’ cooperatives and ateneus, a type of cooperatively-run social and cultural centre. During the dictatorship, when more formal forms of resistance like parties and trade unions were illegal, the neighbourhood also played an important political role. The “barri(o)” is still a central battleground for these types of struggles. When it comes to issues such as expulsion, touristification and gentrification, the city was and still is an embattled space. Discussions regarding a sustainable urban model are of high topical relevance, and individual neighbourhoods function as places of resistance.

Alongside this, you have the debates on municipalism that emerged in the wake of the 15M movement of 2011. After they had occupied the squares, people took to their neighbourhoods, looking for ways to engage more sustainably through local communities and spaces. They sought to build new structures and to work out new demands and practices. These people had been told arrogantly by the elites to get serious and render their demands as “capital P political” proposals. What the elites didn’t expect is that people would not only do this, but win impressive victories as a result. They didn’t think this could be done through a movement like municipalism; that municipalism could win elections.

Bue Rübner Hansen: Yes, 15M was very important as a starting point for municipalism. At that time, debates about the city and parliamentary democracy were kicking off in a number of places. The slogans of the 15M movement were “You don’t represent us” and “Real democracy now”. But people weren’t simply looking to start a new party. Instead, they wanted to be able to shape the democratic process from below, starting with their cities and their neighbourhoods.

So there were different ways of approaching the debate around the city. Who were the other key players?

Manuela Zechner: Well, the existence of collectives such as “Observatorio Metropolitano” and the like indicates that were already many social movements with a strong focus on the city. Then, of course, there were the housing movements, most notably the anti-eviction movement “Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca” (PAH). They had developed a lot of know-how around broad, transversal, accessible popular organising and self-empowerment. Many of the people who eventually stepped up to propose the “Barcelona En Comú” election project in Barcelona in 2014 had strong links to the local PAH.

Bue Rübner Hansen: Barcelona en Comú invited the public to participate in formulating policy. This happened through thematic and neighbourhood workgroups, which drew participants from social movements that were already engaging with health, education, culture or migration. They also drew people with stakes, experience or expertise in those fields. The participatory policy-making often took the form of rich processes of transversal exchange where knowledge about social needs was produced, as well as about the competencies of institutions, existing law and administrative practices. Within Barcelona en Comú, this spirit of drawing on the knowledge, demands and policy proposals of movements still exists today. I spoke to one of the founders, who said something along the lines of, “Before, we were unsure what to do about the situation of rising rents, but since a renters’ union has been formed, we suddenly recognise very well what needs to be done.”

You’ve used the term “municipalism” several times. What exactly does it mean?

Manuela Zechner: I would define municipalism as an attempt to anchor politics in the spaces and everyday lives of the people, with the basic idea that social change should start with local institutions. By exercising political influence or ascending to power, a municipal government can be used as a lever against central government and capital interests. A key element of this is the notion of a politics based on closeness; of being close to the tangible issues that affect people in their daily lives and for which they are able to develop their own solutions in the immediate term. Barcelona en Comú and many other municipalist actors based their agendas and manifestos on input from open neighbourhood groups and issue-based discussion groups. Here, they would have input from all sections of society: the local pensioner with no way of getting to hospital, the people fighting the privatisation of the local healthcare centre, the local architects’ cooperative, and so on. Municipalism means thinking about democratic politics beyond the framework of the nation state. Of course, this is a challenge, not a ready-made solution in itself.

What was and still is particularly important is the feminist way of thinking. In Barcelona and Madrid, municipalist platforms not only propose female mayoral candidates, but also actively represent feminist positions and practices. They advocate for equality, care and concern, variety and diversity. They try to reimagine the concept of political office based on feminist principles.

So municipalism is an electoral approach?

Bue Rübner Hansen: Yes, exactly. It takes local elections and local institutions as potential vehicles for change. Of course, there are many other types of city-based activism, and all of these are a prerequisite for municipalism to succeed. So while it is essentially an electoral project, it is quite different from traditional party-making in that it takes the ideas of a citizen’s platform as its base. There is a reimagining of what it means to organise an electoral bid – and municipalism approaches this in quite a different way from traditional left-wing parties, whose point of attachment is generally the nation state.

Manuela Zechner: Voting rights in Barcelona are not limited by national citizenship. This enables us to define politics in a different way. In this sense, municipalist politics has the potential to redefine citizenship as the agency and rights of all those that inhabit a city. Barcelona en Comú has experimented in this regard by introducing the “Neighbourhood Document”. This is a new municipal certification that proves a person without papers has roots in the city and should not be detained or deported. This is a first step towards protecting people in the spirit of “sanctuary cities”. It remains to be seen how it fares in practice – in offices and courtrooms. This experiment is interesting because it goes beyond the rhetorical level. Ideally, it represents a move in the direction of a kind of municipal ID card, which extends rights and benefits to all who live in a city, regardless of their status. Generally, the first term of the new municipal governments in Spain has been a trial and error of anti-racist strategies. We may credit them with goodwill and tactical intelligence but not enough has been done to include people with irregular status yet. I do hope the attempts to redefine citizenship at the municipal level are continued and intensified if these governments win a second term.

Traditional left-wing strategies usually tackle issues at the level of the nation state, or even at an international level. With this in mind, what are your arguments for starting locally, where you live?

Manuela Zechner: Well, these two approaches aren’t mutually exclusive. Spain is exciting politically in the sense that it has powerful movements on many levels. Projects on different levels don’t necessarily contradict or stand in conflict with one another, though they inevitably have differences in approach. In many cases, the relationship between social movements and institutions is being renegotiated, and this is happening in an environment of complicity, hostility and antagonism. The relationship between electoral projects is similarly complex. With all this said, it’s important to remember that municipalist initiatives do work on an international level, too. The idea of a translocal dimension as manifested by links between cities rather than solely by international relations is a central aspect of the new municipalist movements. We are caught in a paradigm of politics between states, and we need new room for manoeuvre and alliances.

Bue Rübner Hansen: Alongside the municipalist projects, we have initiatives like the political party Podemos, which ran in the 2014 European Parliament elections and operates at the regional, state and European Union level. Furthermore, as has already been touched upon, the municipalist platforms do lots of international work. One of these platforms, the abovementioned international working group “Barcelona en Comú”, is building partnerships and conducting campaigns with a number of movements across Europe, Latin America and the US. At an institutional level, too, city governments are beginning to network in a transnational way, for example when it comes to criticising states’ refugee policies or fighting TTIP. Now, with Donald Trump, there is a lot of networking going on in the form so-called “sanctuary cities”, the cities of refuge in the US.

Let’s go back to the fight against the central Spanish government. What significance does this fight have for alternative policy approaches?

Bue Rübner Hansen: The cultural and institutional history of the Spanish state helps explain why municipalism has experienced a recent breakthrough. The left and the regions have historically had very bad experiences with the state due to fascism – and even before Franco, the rather weak Spanish state had little democratic legitimacy in comparison to many of its Northern European neighbours. Another thing to remember is that the Spanish state was organised according to the Catholic principle of subsidiarity, which meant that as many public services as possible were delegated to lower levels of government. As such, municipalities also played an important role historically. The region-versus-state dynamic has been established in Catalonia for some time now, and municipalism has taken that dynamic to a new level, although the relationship between independentism and municipalism is complex and fraught. The radical left independentist party, CUP, has its origins in a mostly rural and small-town kind of municipalism, while Barcelona en Comú attempts to represent both the pro- and anti-independent sides. The independentist upsurge in 2017 was a difficult challenge for the Comuns. It divided the popular classes of Barcelona over the national question.

How would you break down the strategies that are being used to confront the central government and its policies?

Manuela Zechner: The struggle for independence is the most obvious approach. There are demands for regional autonomy in many places in Spain, with Catalonia being the most prominent case at present. There is a good deal of ambivalence surrounding the issue, because the regional government is fairly neoliberal and is exploiting the independence issue in an opportunistic fashion. At times, parts of the independentist left have gone into uneasy, if not plain unsettling alliances with the neoliberal independentists. Independence is often raised up in a kind of teleological way – “All will be good once independence happens”. Due to that, opportunities for making important changes in the here and now are missed. One example of this is the CUP voting against the municipalisation of water and a series of other citizen-led proposals that could have made a big difference in the city. The independentist, “yes-or-no” debate freezes out all other ongoing political issues and polarizes the population in a way that’s not necessarily productive. I totally understand the rage against the Spanish state and all that it stands for. Despite this, I think that in political terms, independence is not the most promising horizon. Independentism fails to guarantee any kind of social change in the long term. It is also essentially a form of nationalism, however progressive many of its versions may be. Because of this, it comes with a culturalism that I am not comfortable with.

To a certain extent, municipalism has managed to turn the independence dynamic into something different. It articulates a different claim to autonomy – that of the city, which still engages with the independence issue, but comes at it from a very different place. Its perspective is a lot less centred around one “main identity” and “main enemy”. Instead, it proposes a more nuanced picture of who we are and what kind of political space we might dream of. As compared to the national subject, the urban subject is a bit of a monster – and I mean that in a positive sense. It can’t be pinned down to one class, ethnicity, race, nationality, sexuality. Our cities are quite transcultural and “queer”. Municipalism takes this as a potential and tries to develop it further. A literal example of this would be Barcelona en Comú’s rather powerful “Queer Municipalisms” gathering in 2018. However, you can also see it in the way they position themselves in regards to the debate on migration, climate and global justice. Barcelona city has had a global justice department since 2015!

Bue Rübner Hansen: Yes, we are also now seeing new conflicts between cities and central governments. One of the most prominent of these is over the admission of refugees. Both Barcelona and Madrid have wanted to take in more refugees since 2016/17. They have been very vocal about this, with “Refugees Welcome” banners on their town halls, public declarations, open letters to the prime minister and so on. Certainly, it’s not the case that there are no asylum seekers waiting for decisions in Barcelona, or that all migrants have a great life there. However, the city’s campaign sought not only to take in more people, but also to create a debate about the state’s poor excuses for not taking the 18,000 refugees it had promised its fellow EU members. This was Barcelona’s attempt to act as an autonomous city; to provoke, to make the city’s voice heard.

Back then, Barcelona made a bilateral deal with Athens to admit people directly from there. This was a way to test the legal ground for such action. Whenever a central government fails to fulfil its duties, its competences should be called into question in a way that allows regions or cities scope to take the initiative. This opens up the opportunity for legal battles on this level. Following this approach, Barcelona dismantled the central government’s excuses and tested out new pathways for action. Sadly, this didn’t led to more people being let in by the Rajoy government, but it has opened up a new battlefield and symbolically demonstrated that the conservative government was acting in bad faith.

Manuela Zechner: These city campaigns paved the way for prime minister Sanchez’s social democrat government allowing the disembarking of refugees from the famous Aquarius ship in 2018. The cities created a precedent of level-headedness and openness and firmly refused to buy into the fearmongering anti-migrant discourse. When Ada Colau tweeted that the current situation around migration in 2018 makes her feel not afraid, but ashamed, she was a great example of this. All of this is about cleverly navigating media debates to open horizons and forge new room for manoeuvre at the local, national and translocal political levels, not merely the “inter-national” one.

How about other examples?

Manuela Zechner: There is currently a lot of tactical manoeuvring around political competences, particularly for issues on which cities oppose the policies of the central government. Barcelona is making attempts to undermine the powers of the government or to use municipal powers of jurisdiction to challenge them.

Bue Rübner Hansen: The neoliberal state functions by simply ignoring a lot of issues – poverty, high rents, empty houses or increasing homelessness. Cities can take action on this in a way that not only makes up for the state’s lack of action, but also builds social power and participation. Conversely, the city can – paradoxically – take lessons from the neoliberal state on how to selectively ignore or deregulate issues, leveraging this approach in such a way that they strengthen the social foundation and gain leeway that is difficult for future governments to claw back. This can mean ignoring squatting, deregulating street vending or making it easier for people to partake in urban gardening. You could call this a form of “disruptive municipal governance”. It is not intended as a form of direct action against the central state; however, is it also not a normal form of governance. It challenges the way the state is dealing or not dealing with a particular social problem. In Barcelona, this way of thinking is still rather underdeveloped, as so much of the focus still lies on governing in the traditional sense.

What about outright disobedience by the cities? Have there been situations in which this has occurred, or do you see any potential for it?

Bue Rübner Hansen: There is a lot of talk about institutional disobedience in Barcelona. It can mean many different things, from the city council vocally supporting mobilisations against the city’s migrant detention centre to quietly delaying the implementation of policies imposed by Spain’s conservative government. There is a lot of work to be done on refining the tactics and strategies of disobedience, and international examples have a lot of lessons to offer in this regard. One of the most interesting of these is the North American sanctuary cities, which have existed since the 1980s and have adopted various practices to guarantee the rights of undocumented migrants. City police forces are instructed not to ask people if they have papers, which avoids them getting into a situation where they might have to hand someone over to the migration authorities. To facilitate this, New York City introduced municipal ID cards that give residents access to public libraries and other facilities and provide a way for them to identify themselves to the police without revealing information about their immigration status. In this way, the sanctuary cities take quite significant action to subvert federal policies. Trump is now attacking these cities, threatening to cut their federal funding. This has turned the issue into a constitutional question of the autonomy of local government – and it has the potential to open up a much broader front against Trump.

So part of the municipalist strategy is to resist the policies of the central government – to oppose, subvert or actively disobey them. What can we learn from this approach in regard to the way we approach the EU?

Manuela Zechner: An important starting point is always to use the lower levels of the state as a lever against higher ones. Resistance to EU politics can be approached from this perspective, and cities and regions have a central role to play in this regard. We must learn to carve out an autonomous space in which tricks and confrontational tactics can be leveraged to implement a new kind of politics, even in the face of higher powers that oppose it. We must develop pockets of alternative ways of doing things, then expand them, link them and build strength from there. Obviously, this isn’t primarily a task for institutions; it rests on social movements and mobilisation. In Spain, for example, there is a lot of cooperation between the MPs of “En Comú Podem” and municipalist platforms, which adds an additional dimension to the efforts being leveraged against the central government from within.

Rather than simply discussing whether we want to abolish or reform the EU, we must raise the issue of disobedience towards it, whether this comes from cities, regions, countries or movements. In truth, the choice has never been black and white. Instead of getting involved in policy debates, I would suggest that the more sensible option is to forge room for manoeuvre and to establish countervailing power. If we become too entangled in abstract debates of “for” and “against”, we become victims of the illusion that it is possible to make a sovereign decision. But it is not possible to do this – not at the local level, the national or the EU one. This might be more easily apparent to people in crisis countries than to those in the rich core of the EU. Engaging in politics from the ground up means deploying clever tactics, struggling for freedom and not becoming bogged down in ideological positions and debates. This does not mean that debate is not important, but it must go hand in hand with trying out different forms of action. We need to experiment, generously and intelligently, rather than looking for the right line to say. It is better to fail and learn from it than be hamstrung by the purity of our opinions.

Based on the examples you mentioned earlier, it is apparent that a city does not need to act alone. What is the potential for cooperation between cities?

Bue Rübner Hansen: There are networks of European cities at the EU level – Eurocities, for example, which carries out lobbying based on the interests of the lowest common denominator. But this is not necessarily progressive. Where cooperation can really bear a lot of fruit is where cities share the same principles or interests – and this type of translocal connection doesn’t only have relevance for lobbying, but also as a political project. In addition, it sends a new kind of signal – that a city like Barcelona is an international actor in its own right. The city can make a deal with the mayor of Athens and practise a kind of municipal diplomacy. This can be a jumping-off point for networks on the grassroots level.

For the left and social movements, international or European cooperation often means agreeing on a set of common demands or policy proposals. How does the municipalist approach to cooperation differ from this?

Bue Rübner Hansen: The municipalist approach is more effective at shaping opinions and creating a sense of exchange. This facilitates many opportunities. Barcelona, for example, is developing a network of cities to jointly fight the privatisation of public services and re-municipalise them. Within this network, the cities will share knowledge and experiences and facilitate the exchange of ideas amongst individuals. Such an approach also opens up the possibility of coordinating a joint legal challenge against EU regulations. It establishes connections not only between institutions, but between normal people. From the perspective of mobilising the public, one potentially useful approach could be to form an alliance between the inhabitants of two cooperating cities – Barcelona and Marseilles, for instance. In doing this, the participants break the idea that all politically relevant conflicts are played out either within nation states, between nation states, or between nation states and the EU. This idea is toxic for the left. Intermunicipal collaboration is a way to promote a brand of internationalism that does not operate via the channels of nationalism or the nation state, but is built on translocal collaboration.

Manuela Zechner: Another example of an important alliance pursuing this strategy is the network of European cities and municipalities working together against TTIP and CETA. Both city governments and social movements have come together as part of the movement. The point is that there are ways of carrying out translocal campaigns that sever traditional party and political divides. Accommodating refugees is another such issue. When it comes to resisting deportations, communities of all political stripes are joining together to do so. The small Austrian municipalities of Alberschwende and Kumberg are two particularly inspiring examples. There, even conservative residents and city councillors have united to defend neighbours who were scheduled for deportation. Riace in Italy is a similarly interesting example of cohabitation between “old” and “new” locals, showing how migration brings life to places rather than taking things away. Towns and villages are important dimensions of change. As such, we need to find more ways of linking them to bigger cities and listening to the experiences and visions being developed there. Nowadays, if we want to fight the far right and avoid the worst depths of ecological doom, overcoming the rural-urban divide is an essential element. Municipalism also needs to move in this direction.

What other useful lessons can we take from municipalist experiences and apply to the EU debate?

Bue Rübner Hansen: We have mentioned a few examples of cities joining together to stand up to the EU, particularly around issues like privatisation or public services. In some cases, the main opponent is the central government. We saw this when Spanish cities formed a tactical alliance with the EU to oppose the central government on the issue of redistributing refugees across the Union. Equally, it is possible for municipalities and nation states to form alliances against the EU. If the EU demands certain cuts, for example, is not only up to the central government to resist them. Municipalities can also argue that the cuts will be impossible to implement locally.

At the end of the day, when we consider whether the left and social movements should focus on the municipality, the region, the nation state, the EU or the global level, is this an ideological question or a strategic one?

Manuela Zechner: This is a strategic question. We should consistently adopt a multi-level approach to as great an extent as possible. Whatever level we choose for our political work, if we want it to be radical, we must remember that everyday, local and embodied struggles have to be our roots and base. When we can no longer meaningfully connect to those, it’s time to change the playing field.

Bue Rübner Hansen: The importance of the local terrain is often underestimated. People everywhere are experiencing a form of social fragmentation. Neoliberalism and its associated culture of competition and precarity are making us insecure, anxious and lonely. The sense of social solidarity that was once cultivated in trade unions is now mostly very weak. We need to reinvent ways of building solidarity and find practices that restore people’s faith in each other. We must ward off the culture of anxiety and competition and engender social trust and a belief that change is possible. It’s about facilitating experiences that confirm positive values, like the necessity of standing by others even if they are not friends or family. Those kinds of values will be reflected in the way people vote in national elections. Without them, many people will vote for the parties of fear and competition. Municipalism is not the only way to do this, but it can be an important tool.

What are our options in regards to the EU in general?

Bue Rübner Hansen: For long, the left has been trapped in a binary discussion about the EU: reform or abolition. My belief is that it is impossible to make the necessary reforms without some form of existential crisis within the EU, because the treaties would have to be renegotiated. As such, the prospect of reform isn’t very useful to us right now. But abolishing the EU is not necessarily very desirable either, if you look at what is happening with Brexit. If you simply abolish the EU without developing another way of reconciling interests across or beyond borders, you could end up with rising racism, trade wars and the like. As long we as remain trapped in the binary debate, we will only ever end up affirming the nation state or the EU as the “right” option. This makes it easy for us to forget the more important issue: building solidarities and power beyond these poles and across borders. If we fail to do this, there will be no meaningful options available to us for pursuing reform or a potential break.

Manuela Zechner: We need to think about municipalities as places of experimentation. They can set a precedent for solving issues in a different way and, in doing so, can challenge the entire policy framework. The city is a terrain that allows for vastly increased creativity in thinking about new possibilities. On top of this, we must be attentive and open to the peripheries of the EU, since the margins always tend to reveal the truth about the core. We must keep working to peripheralise Europe; to make the EU porous, open, impure, and to build solidarities and shared radical political spaces at different levels.

Three lessons

  1. Don’t get bogged down with trying to solve the biggest problem. Instead, address the problems for which concrete collective action can be taken in the here and now. Don’t focus merely on devising solutions, but on building the shared capacity to enforce and sustain them.
  2. Our strategies always have limitations, as do the strategies of others. Think about out how different approaches can complement each other for mutual benefit and how we can overcome our limitations together.
  3. “Within, against and beyond”: the more we learn to mobilise and inspire each other across different places and forms of struggle, the more strength and power we will have. Let our differences and limitations inspire listening and care rather than judgements and divisions.

This interview was conducted by Lisa Mittendrein in 2017 and updated slightly in the course of the translation.


Zechner, Manuela (2016): Barcelona En Comú: The city as horizon of radical democracy

Ruebner Hansen, Bue and Zechner, Manuela (2015): Building Power in a Crisis of Social Reproduction

Pau Faus (2014): Seven Days at PAH Barcelona. Documentary. 

Nanouk Films (2016): Trailer of the film “Ada for mayor (Alcaldessa)”.

Ayuntamiento de Barcelona, Documento de Vecindad (Leaflet in multiple languages).

Read the next chapter → “Outlook”

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