In recent years, it has become commonplace to talk about being at “the end of a cycle” in Spain. As with any overused expression, there is an element of truth to it. Certainly, the social and political (and even cultural and ideological) landscape today looks very different from between 2014 and 2017 when the so-called “bloc for change”, composed by municipalist confluences, Podemos and other progressive forces showed themselves capable of challenging the post-dictatorship “regime of 78”, powerfully taking the political initiative and launching new ideas, proposals and concepts to the public arena.

The cycle is certainly over, due to various interlocked factors and moments: the impact of the 1st of October 2017 Catalan independence referendum both inside and outside Catalonia; the emergence of the far-right party Vox and its effect on the entire Right (PP and Ciudadanos), which have embarked on a polarising strategy to destabilize the government; the rise of PSOE’s Sanchismo and the formation of the “most progressive government in Spanish democracy” with Unidas Podemos in 2020. Regardless of what we think about its opportunity, and even necessity, this might have enclosed the transformative energies carried by Unidas Podemos with a many times unreliable – and some other times even toxic – senior partner.

Whilst it is easy to conclude that the previous cycle is certainly finished, it is more difficult to ascertain what factors characterise the new cycle we are in. Overall, the last few years have been marked by increasing political apathy, exhaustion and cynicism, actively stimulated by a mainstream media manifestly hostile to other frameworks of understanding current events and developments – in other words, the perfect breeding ground for fascism. This was even before the pandemic, which of course has deep economic consequences, causes anxiety, uncertainty, and a profound sense of isolation, with an increasing difficulty to articulate the many existing emotional, mental, social and political undercurrents. There is an anxious noise going on in cities of silent, deserted streets; within homes, screens, heads, minds and bodies. A void within a void.

Municipalism in Spain now

From an institutional perspective, Barcelona and Valencia are the only major cities still governed by municipalist confluences or similar formations after the 2019 local elections setback. Nevertheless, municipalist forces remain important opposition forces in most major cities, although not without internal divisions and limitations. One problem is that, while the autonomy of each municipalist force is obviously indispensable, municipalism is still unknown for many people, since it is always subsumed under Podemos. In the institutional field, municipalism still needs to develop a more formal and visible structure of cooperation and coordination with political forces at the national level (lack of which was probably one of the reasons for the disappointing results in 2019). This can help it to acquire a more visible entity as a political subject, and as a force to be reckoned with.

Outside the institutions, the emergence of tenants’ unions, such as the Sindicat de Llogateres in Catalonia, or the Sindicato de Inquilinas in Madrid, represent an important development, a sort of expansion of the previous work of the PAH. Tenants’ unions have shown themselves crucial in pushing rent controls into the public discourse, even amidst powerful pressures by the public prosecutor’s office, which recently requested nine years prison sentences for three activists.

Within social movements, the predominant trend is one of fragmentation. One example is the rise of trans-exclusionary feminism, which has severely weakened the feminist movement in the last few years, and has destroyed many organisational spaces. In parallel, we have seen the emergence of certain pseudo-workers’ movements in Left spaces, aiming at building a left-nationalist, anti-migrant interpretation of the economic situation. In part, these symptoms can be understood as reaction to the failures or shortcomings of the previous cycle, marked by a need for a return of nostalgic and essentialist conceptions of political identities. However, if we accept this interpretation, we may well remember that these symptoms are a reaction against the emergence of new kinds of feminism and what probably is the most well-articulated anti-racist movement in Spain for a long time, following the Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2020.

New Horizons

This brings us to examine the main fronts of social and political struggle in the coming times. Municipalism can play a truly important role in articulating and rooting those struggles in local contexts, whilst also providing a framework for understanding them in relation to what they have in common with other realities. To synthesise, let us group them in two main sets of issues:

  1. Politics of respect. In this reactionary context, cities can prove themselves to be crucial for articulating a politics of conviviality based on respect towards differences and diversity of subjectivities. They can do so by going beyond the neoliberal understanding of identity politics as individual recognition. One of the most potentially fruitful concepts of municipalism is its renewed understanding of citizenship as belonging and citizenry as a participatory, shared collective subject. Municipalists – both inside and outside of institutions – can root this in urban contexts by proposing and implementing policies and spaces for fostering mutual dialogue and understanding between communities from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds, sexual orientations, and so on; and by providing everyday spaces for building conviviality, respect and understanding below – beyond, manipulative, divisive and toxic media discourses. In the end, municipalism is about providing the material basis not only for the protection of all residents, but also for the very transformation of the city according to its actual diversity.
  2. “España vaciada” (“Emptied Spain”). One of the oldest and constitutive problems in Spain’s modern history and has recently returned to public debate: the profound economic, social, political and cultural gap between urban and rural Spain. Municipalism can play a key role in providing alternative frameworks for understanding these problems. It can do so for example by problematising the usual rural/urban dichotomy – in fact, a broader and more complex spectrum exists, ranging from urban through suburban and exurban realities to rural areas, notwithstanding the internal diversity of each one of these. Municipalism can articulate a vision of these intertwined realities as sets of relations: economic (circuits of production-consumption); logistic (transport, commuting, infrastructures); social (migration and relocation flows, both directions); political (differences in voting patterns) and even cultural and ideological (urban cosmopolitanism vs supposed rural conservatism or “backwardness”). All these are crucial questions that cut through Spain’s territorial configuration, beyond the (both central and “peripheral”) nationalist/independentist approach, and thus can open an important terrain of political struggle across the whole country.