There seems not to be many promising scenarios on the near future for progressive policies. From Spain to Hungary, the right, in all its forms, has the power of member states. In such a situation, where transnational financial elites are re-founding neoliberalism using new faces such Macron or old ideologies such Le Pen’s, how can anyone aspire to change anything? The only opportunity for progressive people, in a context of not having the means to confront institutionalised powers, is to win back the right to the city.
The Great Recession is still affecting Europe. Neoliberalism has won —in all its different forms, from authoritarian democracies to “non-political” bureaucracies. Current generations will be —actually, already are— poorer than older ones. The planet is reaching the point of no return, even with the Paris Agreement signed in almost all countries in the world —by the way, thanks for that, Donald. And, however, there is no alternative (TiNA). At least, there is no alternative majority in which the citizenry can believe in. True, Greens and other alternative progressive parties have had great results in Austria, the Netherlands, and others. But those parties have not the power, despite being in office —winning in a bunch of countries or having good results in others are not enough to put forward the changes we want.
Alright, TiNA. Now what?
There have been lots of articles analysing what is wrong with the system or why neoliberalism is the ideology that caused it all. Antonio Gramsci, the Italian Communist philosopher, even developed the idea behind being in office but not having the power. He called it “cultural hegemony”, a concept that described all sources of power beyond being at the government. In the 21st century we know them well, and not exactly by Marxist terminology. The media, the banking system, some major international institutions… Every single resort of power that favours a system —a frame that defines an ideology.
The problem with many political fights is that they accept such a frame. From a progressive perspective, accepting neoliberalism cultural hegemony implies abandoning people on their own. Social welfare is left behind in the name of the greater good —austerity measures, the CETA and the European Commission’s strategy “Trade for all” are examples of such reasoning. It is then when the far-right appears, and when it presents itself as defender of those who have less. “Globalisation losers”, as some name them.
In many countries, even where they have not won nor are in power, the far-right is shaping the neoliberal agenda. Migration control, for instance, has appeared to be a measure that only Green Left parties are rejecting —and not always. Hence, far-right measures are becoming part of neoliberal cultural hegemony. National governments’ role is to establish such policies, and lower institutional levels, like municipalities, only have a mandate: to manage the budget and comply with the orders from above.
However, resistance is fertile among grassroots activism. Since the beginning of the Great Recession we have had different anti-austerity movements: “indignados”, Occupy —that took over Frankfurt and London, among others—, Nuit Debout. And many others that do not have a name but share their aim to fight for a different society in Greece, Portugal, Serbia, Croatia or the Czech Republic…
All of them have in common their local actions. No matter what type of actions they have come up with, none of them can be done without the local level, in towns and cities: without appealing to the grassroots, no movement of change can win the hegemony. And that is even truer when protesters organise themselves in political platforms to run for elections. It is not important whether they come from more institutionalised parties or more grassroots movements —what matters is their common aim of change. It is then when alternatives are created. That is what we have experienced all over Spain, where we have even come up with the term “Municipalities of Change” to describe this reality.
Right to the city
At the end of the day, problems are similar living in Lisbon or Helsinki. Housing prices do not allow people — especially the youth — to develop their life projects, and local governments are the ones that have to deal with this issue in the first place. No matter whether nation-states are willing to deal with migration; municipalities are the first administrative level which not only welcome refugees, but also implement their daily support. And, finally, after the lack of ambition of and commitment to the Paris Agreement, towns and cities from Europe —and the world— are organising to surpass by far nation-states climate alleviation measures.
It is for that reason that the “right to the city”, a concept developed by the French Henri Lefebvre, is being put forward all over Europe. It demands to bring back the concept of what living in a city is, to take back control of those political entities to which citizens identify themselves the most. When even the established concept of democracy is being put into question, it is surprising that municipalities are revealing as alternatives to change the system from below. They are becoming some sort of resistance line; in which urgent policies can be implemented in a time where economic globalisation has transformed the way we used to operate in politics.
Nevertheless, this state of resistance cannot last for a long time. As we will see, towns and cities show us there are other ways of implementing —and even creating— alternative policies. For that reason, they have to be put at the centre of policy-making. That is called “subsidiarity”, a concept that refers to decisions taken to the nearest level to the citizenry. At the EU level, it is recognised at the Treaties as a way to define competencies between the Union and its member states. For example, the European Parliament has to justify that it is the correct institution to tackle an issue according to subsidiarity. That is to mean that no other administrative level can deal with the problem on the table as well as the Parliament can do —because it surpasses national frontiers, like in the case of climate.
But subsidiarity is usually forgotten in lower levels than nation-states, except maybe in those that have a full federal administration —and not many states in Europe are organised like that. In a more democratic and social Europe, municipalities should be the level in which urgent needs are attended.
A progressive approach towards common challenges: housing
It is this progressive model which shall allow us to offer innovative solutions in a landscape dominated by the “business as always” dogma. By knowing better what the exact needs of their citizenry are, local governments are the best administration to implement —and, therefore, to design— policies that have the citizen, or guaranteeing a collective access to the Commons, as its main aim.
More importantly, such policies are being shared without the mediation of any supralocal entity, be it through institutionalised networks such as Eurocities or ad-hoc fora like Fearless Cities. Progressive municipalities have realized that they are being ignored by major governments, like the European Commission or national governments, usually because they have other ideological priorities. With such networks, these “rebel municipalities” —as sometimes they call themselves— are working together to act on the ground when executive governments do not implement policies for the citizenry, but for transnational financial elites.
Housing is an urgent need to be addressed, and that can be done better at the local level. Although the general problem is the same everywhere —prices are excluding people to live in their own cities by raising the cost of life—, every town and city in Europe has its specific demands. An example is the case of Barcelona, where uncontrolled vacation rentals by major companies like Airbnb have created an urban environment that exclude people who make their daily lives there in favour of temporal and rotating visitors in vacations.
Different promising initiatives try to allow people not to resign to their life projects due to being quitted from their homes. Or to allow people to create their own, because many of them —especially us, the youth— had not that chance. Such solutions cannot be based only on regulating and banning illegal rentals, as they are not solving the problem. To tackle the issue of decent housing we need to deepen in our policies, to rethink the whole city model. For instance: do we really need to own —or rent— a house to live in it?
Barcelona en Comú, a progressive coalition of the Catalan Green Left and social movements, has tried to face such problems with new tools since it won the local government at 2015 elections. It is a different approach to making policies: to tackle issues before they happen, not to alleviate consequences.
Firstly, it has put forward the importance of having a public housing infrastructure, where the local government controls rentals and helps little owners to renovate their properties. The idea behind that is to maintain decent conditions in a city that suffers from too high prices. This measure requires of a massive expenditure: the budget on housing has augmented from 45 million € in 2015 to 160 million € in 2017.
But, as I said above, citizens need to oversee the whole process in the new grassroots democracy born after the anti-austerity protests. So the local administration has to put into disposal of citizens all the information relating to the issue for them to audit a process if necessary. With that aim it created a Housing Local Observatory.
However, these efforts would be meaningful if the citizenry is not empowered. That is why new housing models are being put forward and supported by the city council: “co-housing” and “urban sharecropping”. They threaten the current model of housing tenure, in which we only distinguish “owners”, “landlords” and “renters”.
Co-housing is an alternative to such a model. It consists on living together with the neighbours forming a community, where each resident counts on their private places and the common ones. It does not imply resigning to privacy: there are individual areas —each resident have their bedroom, a kitchen, a bathroom and a living room— and common areas —with a bigger dining room and a kitchen, offices, guest rooms, playground, a garden… It is a different way of living, where the house is not only the place to rest, but the place to live in community.
Urban sharecropping, on the other hand, is a movement based on taking advantage of all those empty houses that cannot be put into the market because of deterioration. Under such a premise, the possibility to establish a “sharecropping contract” with a tenant is offered to those houses’ owners. According to such a contract, the tenant would be responsible of restoring house conditions in exchange of the right to live in it. Both the owner and the tenant agree on the period of time that this agreement will last, as well as how to take care of any other practicality —urban taxes, etc. In brief, urban sharecropping is a model where ownership fades away and is replaced by the right to live in a decent house.
Of course, none of these alternatives can be the final solution to anything alone. And, from a progressive point of view, we should recognise a great potential to suffer financial abuse or bad living conditions. That is why these alternatives need to be implemented at the local level: as local governments are the nearest level to the citizenry, they are the most capable administration to oversee these new models. Using municipalities as the beacon of such measures, we can be sure to implement that kind of policies to those who need it more. Not only because local governments are the ones that know better their constituencies, but also because empowering municipalities would avoid having a huge central state too big to actually implement anything.
They could be even the right institution to address such challenges and to offer alternatives based on the collaboration of the public and the collaborative spheres. For instance, what would happen if we combine public housing with urban sharecropping? Although it has not been proved yet, it has the potential to be a solution for both people who has been expelled from their homes and to recover those old empty houses that nobody cares about.
Conclusion: Towards a Europe of municipalities?
As Barcelona is showing with housing, there are many promising areas for innovative progressive to be designed from the local level. And, more importantly, none of those has to be exactly the same. The benefits from a municipalist movement are that similar issues can be fight with different measures. And, moreover, such movements do not only belong to global megalopolis like London, Barcelona, Madrid or Paris, but also littler cities like Grenoble. If we are really to build up alternatives based on municipalities, and to reshape our governance system from bottom-up, we need to come up with a model that take into consideration such differences between cities
Collaboration is essential in this new world that municipalities are designing. Only through the regionalisation of cities, or the urbanisation of regions, can we really reclaim an equal right to the city. The way forward is, of course, firstly winning the city, and then building up such alliances. Progressive forces need to collaborate, no matter if our ideology is green or red, or even with not established forces, if we want to succeed. Collaboration at every level, beginning with our daily fights, is the key to transform the alternative into reality.
So, in conclusion, we need to win our cities, no matter their size. Then we can escalate our collaborative model to change regions, countries, and even the EU. Devolution and subsidiarity are already there, as we have pointed out. Why should not we take advantage of such a decentralised model? Transnational financial elites have their means to be in power. Why should not we use our first and last level of political resistance? We need to shift from a Europe of states to a Europe of municipalities. Empowering municipalities through progressive policies can let us to weaken nation-states, the only way in which we can put back democracy and accountability in our hands.
Marc Martorell is a member of the Catalan Young Greens (Joves d’Esquerra Verda) Executive Committee, and an activist at the Federation of Young European Greens. He went politically active with the Arab Spring and the Indignados movement, and fights for a re-shape in European democracy have driven his political life —from anti-TTIP protests to municipalist actions.
 The translation is mine. I am referring to the Catalan term “masoveria urbana”, which comes from “masoveria”, or sharecropping. It was an ancient rural model of land tenure that implied the use of land in exchange of taking care of it. In other words, the peasant took care of crops and the land and, in exchange, the landlord allowed them to live and take benefit from what they produced.
 As the reader probably knows, since the beginning of the Great Recession in Spain, many people who could not afford paying their mortgages have been evicted from their homes by banking institutions. That has created a huge social problem, because it was the same banks who granted such mortgages in the first place during the Spanish real state bubble.
Article image: Barcelona Marina Sunset by David Spender (Flickr, CC-BY-2.0)