On the Institutional Turn: Four Years of Electoral Municipalism - Juan Cruz López

Manuela Carmena campaigns for Ahora Madrid in 2015

An article written just prior to the 2019 municipal elections in Spain. The author rehearses the arguments in favour of the left's so-called institutional turn and considers its impact on social movements.

Four years ago, shortly before the 2015 elections, I was asked to write an analysis of the so-called ‘popular’ candidates. Calling themselves municipalists and claiming the legacy of 15M, they sought to draw on these constituencies in order to storm the institutions and thereby revitalise the democratic project. What I came up with was Asaltados o asaltantes. Municipalismo y movimientos sociales en la coyuntura electoral (Assailants or assailed. Municipalism and social movements in the electoral context), a short text originally published in the magazine Youkali and later put out as a fanzine (Piedra Papel Libros. Jaén: 2015).

Today, a few days before the electoral cycle begins again in mid-April 2019, it seems like a propitious moment to revisit this text. A good proportion of its lines of analysis remain valid although it should be borne in mind that much has changed along the way, including the appearance of new – and other not so new – participants in the field.

The balance-sheet of the institutional turn depends on one’s perspective and the interests one considers to be at stake, so in order to provide a more comprehensive account, we have divided our considerations accordingly.

Assailants

One of the strong points of the arguments that justified the electoral turn at the municipal level was that the candidates in question were those best placed to carry on the legacy of 15M. They would take its demands to the political arena and make political participation accessible to the people (given, so the argument went, the exhaustion of the street-level assembly strategy favoured by the indignados). Seen in this light, the desire to form parties, platforms and candidacies of a municipalist stripe was a sign of 15M entering maturity, allowing it to break with the stagnation and ineffectiveness that the movement had fallen into by 2014.

A sympathetic analysis of this strategy would point to the electoral success of those candidates that took control of town halls in Madrid, Barcelona, Cadiz, Zaragoza and La Coruña. Furthermore, the boost that they have given to Podemos and its affiliates has helped parties to the left of the PSOE achieve a level of political representation unprecedented in the history of Spanish democracy.

Proponents argue that this institutional representation has translated directly into real political power. On the one hand, it has turned the demands of social movements into law (most notably at the municipal level but also in autonomous regions and at the level of state). On the other, it has revitalised the democratic governance of cities, enabling a more participatory administration of the institutions. This has regenerated the democratic system, so the argument goes, by capturing the interest of a portion of the population previously turned off by politics.

For partisans of the institutional turn, a further proof of its success is the replication of the model abroad, which has allowed a somewhat eclectic alliance of ‘cities for the right to the city’ to emerge. Adherents are committed to government policies inspired by: 1. greater social equality, 2. a smaller ecological footprint, and 3. democratic radicalisation (something that must be made compatible with efficient models of administration capable of, for example, reducing public debt).

Such a balance sheet is likely to comfort only one section of the left; that which, rather than break with the present system of representation, only wishes to remould it, either through radicalising it, splintering the two-party system, or reforming the electoral law. At the risk of simplification, the most pragmatic of the activists who came out of 15M belong to this section of the left, alongside the remnants of the old politics who found in the new platforms a useful way of expanding their constituencies.

Assailed

Parallel to the consolidation of municipalist electoral projects, the mobilising power of most social movements has declined. This has weakened their capacity for political intervention, undermined their independence and reduced their ability to bring together wide sections of the popular classes.

It is no secret that the party structure of Podemos, its affiliates and the other electoral brands claiming the municipalist label in Spain, has absorbed activists from the social movements, which has in turn weakened the latter. This is only partly because the movements struggle to fill the gaps left by such activists. More importantly, the phenomenon has allowed external forces to instrumentalise their struggles and concrete demands, reducing their political independence and negotiating power. This has encouraged in turn a purely electoral reading of demands which otherwise might have formed part of an independent programme that, in the best-case scenario, could challenge the legitimacy of the administrative institutions of capitalism.

The worst aspect of the ebbing of the movements has been their atomisation and consequent impermeability, accompanied by a feeling of incapacity, stagnation and lack of initiative. Inevitably, the only forces hoping to take advantage of this situation are the old vanguardist and sectarian groupuscules, entirely disconnected from the needs of those who suffer the consequences of the criminal and ecocidal status quo.

Those who identify with this reading are likely to be those of us who aspire to the creation and consolidation of structures of political participation that might counterbalance the power of regime institutions. Firstly, because the latter cannot be reshaped in our interests, and secondly because historical experience demonstrates that the most that can be hoped for from forming a part of the parliamentary system is the co-management of disaster.

So now what…

With all this in mind, we consider it an urgent necessity to carry out an analysis of the weaknesses of the libertarian milieu. Allowing for the external factors that limit the impact of our discourse and organisational projects, we still need to understand why we have been incapable of helping to strengthen, not only our own organisations, but also the social movements that could be considered compatible with our praxis and demands.

As a first step, we need to open our eyes to the exceptions. To appreciate what’s been working well for those collectives, movements and organisations that, far from being intimidated by the present state of affairs, have managed to broaden their struggles and transmit their message to ever more people. Through organisation and perseverance, some have achieved transformations in areas that until recently seemed untouchable. The feminist movement is one obvious example. On a smaller scale, we can point to federations, collectives, assemblies and unions of a libertarian character that, on a local level, have managed to broaden their radius of action, bring more people on board and consolidate a position from which they are able to struggle for the transformation of society in the interests of the popular classes.

In a context of increasing social disintegration and with the medium-term prospect of increasing social conflict connected to the consequences of climate change, it behoves us to reconsider how we might find support in ever-wider sections of society for our ideas, practices and desires. Not so much to keep the flag of the revolution flying as to increase the chances of survival of the world, our species, and of the socially constructed ideas, accords and interests that guarantee the dignity of the human being and of life itself.

Taken from: https://www.todoporhacer.org/asaltados-y-asaltantes/ (translated June 2019)

Posted By

Dannny
Jun 13 2019 15:23

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  • Parallel to the consolidation of municipalist electoral projects, the mobilising power of most social movements has declined. This has weakened their capacity for political intervention, undermined their independence and reduced their ability to bring together wide sections of the popular classes.

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Spikymike
Jun 13 2019 16:44

An 'On the one hand this and on the other hand that' approach, presumably a brief introduction to something else more open to critical consideration, though relating to some nebulous 'libertarian left' defined here only by reference to Podemos doesn't bode well.

Dannny
Jun 13 2019 17:20
Spikymike wrote:
An 'On the one hand this and on the other hand that' approach, presumably a brief introduction to something else more open to critical consideration, though relating to some nebulous 'libertarian left' defined here only by reference to Podemos doesn't bode well.

Don't think it's meant to imply equal sympathy for both positions. It says that any balance sheet of the last 4 years will depend on your perspective, so first the author imagines a 'defence' of the institutional turn, concluding that such arguments will only satisfy reformists. It's also pretty clear that Podemos isn't included in the author's conception of the libertarian milieu.