The city is ours: the past and present of urban movements in Madrid


The City is Ours (La ciudad es nuestra) is the title of a film made shortly after Spanish dictator Francisco Franco’s death in 1975. Set in the early 1960s, it documents the struggles of residents living on the outskirts of major Spanish cities. The main component of their activities was the so-called “citizens’ movement”. It began by demanding better public services in working-class neighbourhoods and eventually became a popular front against Franco’s dictatorship. The residents’ response was a part of major mobilisations that weakened the authoritarian regime and paved the way for the transition to democracy in Spain.

…the democratic institutions created during this transition are now in a state of paralysis, incapable of politically responding to the challenges presented by the ongoing economic crisis.

That urban movement gained momentum in the mid-1970s, in a context of deep economic crisis, whose consequences were similar to the current one: high unemployment, spending and wage cuts and increasing social inequality. Between 1975 and 1978, citizen grassroots protests led to a democratic transition that is usually considered a major success among third-wave democratisations. Yet, the democratic institutions created during this transition are now in a state of paralysis, incapable of politically responding to the challenges presented by the ongoing economic crisis. This highlights the deficiencies of a democratic model whose electoral law and party system have 1) limited direct citizens’ participation in the institutional framework during the last three decades and 2) enabled the two major parties to control the work of supposedly independent state institutions (such as the Constitutional Court, the Court of Audit, and the Bank of Spain). Due to these shortcomings, Spain is, according to the 2011 Democracy Index drawn up by The Economist, ranked in last place in the list of “full democracies”.

In this context of partocracy, three factors explain the interrelation between the economic and political crisis currently plaguing Spain. According to a recent survey carried out by the major radio station Cadena Ser in Spain, 88% of those interviewed considered their political representatives to be part of an elite group that defended the interests of a privileged minority. First, an increasing number of citizens believe that the economy is out of control and that Spanish democracy has been “subverted” by the impositions of international institutions such as the EU. Second, the negative distributive effects of austerity policies have destroyed the social consensus on which the transition to democracy was based. Third, the harsh economic measures adopted to help support the middle and lower classes have been ineffective. Since Spain climbed on the austerity bandwagon in May 2010, over 1.5 millions Spaniards have lost their jobs. Spain’s unemployment rate in February 2013 was twice the European Union average. Only Bulgaria and Romania had a higher percentage of people at risk of poverty, according to recent Eurostat figures.

In recent times it has become common for political parties and their leaders to be considered the third-most important problem in the country, preceded only by the soaring unemployment rate and the dire economic situation.

In addition, a never-ending series of corruption scandals has fuelled the feeling of political disaffection among citizens. In early 2013 an opinion poll revealed that 96% of Spaniards believe that politics is tainted by the abuse of authority, bribes, misappropriation of public funds, illegal funding of parties, etc. In May, the New York Times remarked that while Spaniards were suffering the effects of harsh deficit-cutting plans, the revelations of widespread political corruption were “stoking bitter resentment” and “undermining the credibility of the political class as a whole”. Perhaps that is why the January 2013 Eurobarometer highlighted Greece, Spain and Latvia as the European countries whose citizens had the least trust in their leaders. In recent times it has become common for political parties and their leaders to be considered the third-most important problem in the country, preceded only by the soaring unemployment rate and the dire economic situation.

A deep sense of social mistrust of the institutional pillars of the representative system has emerged in Spain. Citizens’ ratings of the Constitution, Parliament, the Monarchy, the party system and the judiciary are at their lowest levels since the current democracy was introduced after the Franco’s death. And as Spanish society has become ever more distant from its institutions, it has begun to seriously rethink its connections with politics. As a result, a new movement has begun that bears some resemblance to the citizens’ movement in the 1960s. In May 2011, as the country approached regional elections, thousands of protesters camped in the famous Puerta del Sol in Madrid, giving birth to the 15M Movement. For a month, the square housed what various authors classified as a “miniature city” or the “city-state of the indignant”. The Puerta del Sol, an important centre of commerce and transport, became the “Republic of Sol” for a few weeks, an alternative polity where protests created new forms of self-governance independent from those provided by the state and the market.

The occupation of the Plaza del Sol represented the symbolic reclaiming of the political centre of the city by those without access to formal political power structures. During those weeks the indignant citizens demanded “real democracy” and greater civic participation when it came to managing public affairs. The demonstrators called for the political control of the economy and the social control of politics. They also called into question the whole range of symbolic rules and hegemonic discourses (such as the praising of liberal-technocratic democracy, the extolling of political moderation, the aversion of ideological polarisation, the exclusion of alternative voices, the juxtaposition between capitalism, development and modernity, etc.) on which the post-Francoist democracy have rested during the last 35 years. Neil Hughes has called 15M “a new social movement capable of confronting the elites that have dominated the country’s economy and polity since the transition to democracy in the 1970s”.

After the camp was closed, the 15M movement adopted a decentralised structure. It spread to the city suburbs (barrios) through the creation of more than one hundred neighbourhood popular assemblies. Since their foundation in June 2011, the neighbourhood assemblies have spun a diffuse web of local connections, enabling the alternative politics of the city and thus of urban citizenship to play out through everyday interactions. Though the assemblies are completely autonomous, they are interconnected and coordinated with other 15M groups through horizontal and deliberative structures as the General Popular Assembly of Madrid.

One of the “urban laboratories” born from the Puerta del Sol camp was the Popular Assembly of Lavapiés (APLVP), a neighbourhood of Madrid with a tradition in urban struggles dating back to the 1970s. Since then, local authorities and major construction companies have pursued business opportunities in this multicultural area in the historic centre of Madrid. During the last three decades various town planning projects have attempted to subordinate residents’ needs to those of property speculators. However, the process of gentrifying the neighbourhood and supposedly making it “safer” (through greater control and surveillance) have repeatedly met with strong opposition from local residents. Residents have protested through campaigns of disobedience, occupations of derelict buildings, using networks of autonomous socio-cultural centres, libraries and book shops, as well as music and street theatre and other forms of artistic expression of unrest. The APLVP, created two years ago, has reactivated this traditional resistance in an attempt to recover the value of the neighbourhood as a genuinely communitarian social space.

Its members demand the social right to housing by stopping evictions and, through initiatives such as the “SEC36 project”, occupying empty flats (belonging to financial institutions bailed out with public money) to be used by unemployed migrants and evicted residents in danger of social exclusion. This assembly is also attempting to preserve the neighbourhood’s existing character. To that end, its different work groups have implemented various counter-initiatives of alternative urban economics, such as self-employment cooperatives and ecological production, self-management networks, soup kitchens and community vegetable gardens. As the analyst and activist E. García points out, these projects work with horizontal assembly technologies, adopting the principles of spontaneity and nonviolence.

In addition, the APLVP fights for intercultural integration and against police control of immigrants through a newly-created “network of alerts against racist raids”. Their work is an obstacle to the neoliberal transformation of the social landscape of the neighbourhood. As a result, the authorities have increased the number of identification checks, fines and arrests, thus attempting to break up these networks of residents and immigrants. However, the increased repression has not stopped the assembly and the APLVP has set up its own groups to offer legal advice and raise legal defence funds through the creation of “resistance boxes”. These collection boxes, set up in more than 100 neighbourhood bars and shops, provide means of mutual assistance and pay for by various APLVP activities. Participating businesses also receive and distribute copies of Infolavapiés, the assembly’s newsletter.

APLVP is also responding to the privatisation of parks and public squares (which have been denuded of existing trees and covered in cement to construct car parks) by liberating new spaces. Residents have taken over derelict buildings and created social centres with symbolic names like “Roots”. The emergence of the 15M Movement has gone hand in hand with an increase in the number of centres of this type, which fulfil needs not met by the authorities. In July 2012, social activists occupied a piece of waste land next to the main square in Lavapiés. This space has become a social centre in which local residents have come together and participated in various cultural activities, such as cinema discussion groups, concerts, workshops and lectures. Through such activities, the APLVP attempts to enliven the neighbourhood’s community life to counteract the isolation intensified by political passiveness. It could therefore be said that this assembly represents a collective effort to bring everyday urban life into politics. It is an exponent of a new urban citizenship which is emerging as the popular power to shape and democratically control the production of the urban space.

Urban citizenship is thus realised in practice by allowing residents not just to “reclaim the city” but to challenge the existing system of democracy. As described by Mark Purcell, the activities undertaken by the APLVP have functioned as a political catalyst of a new right to:

  1. Participate within the city through meaningful inclusion in democratic decision making.
  2. Toinhabitthe city through access to appropriate resources and public services.

In other words, these popular assemblies have had a political influence on public space, creating the conditions required to exercise new citizenship rights. But it is an urban citizenship more concerned with active participation in civic and political life than with de jure rights sanctioned by the state. The assemblies of the 15M Movement embody an urban citizenship not restricted to the formal, passive and liberal right of individual access to the instrumental resources of the city.

…For instance, the popular festivals organised by the APLVP try to provide a counterpoint to the dull local festivities promoted by the local council.

Lavapiés is not an isolated case. Assemblies in Carabanchel, San Blas, Orcasitas, Usera, Arganzuela and Tetuán have all set up popular universities, “tiendas amigas” (shops that offer discounts to the unemployed), food banks, “silos del tiempo” (local networks that allow local residents to exchange services), social currencies based on fair, egalitarian economic relations and other forms of collective governance. All of these collective practices represent a different way of living in the city, in which communitarian values, popular solidarity, and the quest for the common good prevail over the neoliberal idea of the city as property.  This has also been highlighted in the organisation of alternative initiatives to increasingly commercial and depoliticised festivals such as San Isidro and Gay Pride. For instance, the popular festivals organised by the APLVP try to provide a counterpoint to the dull local festivities promoted by the local council. In short, what is happening in the neighbourhoods of Madrid represents a historic process of community construction of a certain urban ideal, in which human lives are not subordinated to economic imperatives.

As a historic process, the current mobilisations for the “right to the city” are not, as they have been presented in the media, “social mushrooms” born out of nothing. There appears to be a certain line of continuity between the new wave of urban activism and the cycle of anti-authoritarian citizens’ movement protests in the 1960s and 1970s. Even though the popular assemblies of the 15M Movement have introduced many new elements, they use values and repertoires from the anti-Francoist citizen movement. One of the main issues debated during the post-Franco transition was the type of local democracy to be introduced in Spain. At that time, the powerful citizens’ movement defended a participatory version of municipal democracy, but this model created to foster a strong and autonomous local engagement was finally co-opted by the leading role played by political elites.

The ideological implications arising from the triumph of moderate political forces in the tumultuous Iberian transition to democracy, later followed by the fall of the Soviet Union, contributed toward redefining the radical notion of urban civil society born in the social uprisings of the 1960s. As Gideon Baker remarks, the West’s victory in the Cold War extolled parliamentary liberalism as the only legitimate ideology, replacing other definitions that championed direct democracy at local level. As a result, during the last two decades, past experiences of civic self-organisation in the urban space have been dropped from the public discourse in countries like Spain, where regime change was followed by the demobilisation of political life to preserve the stability of the new democracy.  However, the new 15M urban movements represent the re-introduction of the local, participative and egalitarian understanding of civil society that first emerged in the 1960s and 1970s citizens’ movement. The institutional model established at the end of the Cold War has been increasingly questioned by much of the Spanish urban population. The political era that followed the passing of the Constitution in 1978 appears to be coming to an end. In its place, a new model is emerging that allows new actors to speak. The time for civil society has come.

Thus, reframing the Spanish transition after the Franco era as a struggle to define democracy can shed light on the different paths available. This is a relevant political task in the current context of urban crisis, which has re-opened this discussion with the largest citizen mobilisations since the country’s last democratic transition. The lessons of the past could be considered when facing a problematic present.