How much urban democracy can global capitalism stand?

Open city

Three decades of neoliberal deregulation from the wild side of the market have impeded and disfigured opportunities for urban democracy and have seized the city from its people. In spite of their meagre forces, some recent municipal initiatives have worked to strengthen the role of cities in fighting inequality and in bringing democracy back to the public sphere.

Cities and sovereignty, sovereign cities, citizen sovereignty; these words bring up extremely persistent questions on how to deal with 21st-century dilemmas. All this in a context of social degradation and the global erosion of democracy, where state sovereignty and market sovereignty no longer have much to do with the dignity of individuals and the sovereignty of peoples. This is especially true in the absence of any institutions for global governance that aren’t aimed at accelerating neoliberalism. Not even the mirage of the EU —which loudly boasts about the fundamental values that, in truth, it hacks away at day after day— is a formally democratic space. The Parliament has little say, the ECB is outside of public control and the Greek, Italian and Spanish situations of 2011 make Europe’s basic opposition to sovereignty very clear: it deposed a Greek president in order to convene a referendum, used a technical coup to impose an Italian government without elections and (miraculous miracle!) it reformed the unreformed Spanish Constitution one August night. All of this was done in the name of ceding sovereignty to the markets, markets that take away social and civil rights or impose their views when it comes time to make decisions on protecting rights, freedoms and guarantees.

In controlled, co-opted, weakened or semi-failed states, can municipal politics protect from the bottom up what others are trying to dismantle from the top down? Can cities, as Saskia Sassen would say, take on a new role, fight the metastasis of inequality in urban areas or bring democracy back to the public sphere? With varying success, many recent municipal initiatives are trying. From square one, however, they’re faced with a significant barrier: the system is designed to perpetuate itself, not to be transformed—even from within. There’s also a second barrier: accelerated mercantilism. Capitalism has discovered that cities are the pivot points for global business, and while mercantilism cruises along at full steam, its alternatives can only hoist a few sails. Plus, it’s important to remember that the class system is permeated by a translucent, parallel reality: the power of certain individuals grows day by day, beyond local institutions and without being subject to elections or accountability.

Who’s truly in charge in cities, who’s pulling the strings? Who ends up really running things, and who puts them out of kilter? Does anyone have power beyond the power of money? If the city that’s no longer filled with marvels is still a global brand, what price does it have to pay (in terms of social segregation and exclusion) to play in the global league? What kind of consequences —displacement, insecurity, substitution— do its citizens face? If a decade ago we were already talking about an unfortunate “delocalized democracy” (where many decisions were made, de facto, from the outside), and if for years now our neighbourhood movements have been talking about the behind-the-scenes power of the G-16 in Barcelona (the city elite that almost always gets its way through economic orthodoxy), what can we say now? Have we moved forwards or backwards? How sovereign are our cities, really? Who shapes them, who plans them, who decides? Who’s stronger, Uber or striking taxi drivers? With failed consumers and constant price changes, what do we care about more: the global power of boutiques or the tenuous survival of unlicensed street vendors? Why do the fairy tale of progress, the mirage of unlimited growth and the myth of continued progress continue to overcome each new resistance like methadone?

Perhaps we first need to consider the film set that encourages us to believe that we live in a democratic system with representative, fairly distributed political and civil power in spite of constant proof to the contrary. There’s very little democracy when reality reveals that we’re living under basically plutocratic political regimes —be they European, national, regional, local— with a thin veil of polyarchy. Those that have the most make the decisions, they let us choose which fraction of the elite will run our lives, and we only vote once every four years when full democracy means quite a bit more, and involves quite a bit more work, than just submitting a ballot once every 1,500 days. Three decades of neoliberal deregulation from the wild side of the market (direct or subtle, visible or disguised) have impeded and disfigured opportunities for urban democracy and have seized the city from its people. Without the connection between the two, nothing is possible. Or rather, anything is possible: any sort of mercantilist dystopia of accumulated dispossession can materialize in a “smart city” that’s half shopping mall, half military barracks. A mercantilist drive and an authoritarian drive, hand in hand.

Sure, we’re talking about Barcelona, but how many Barcelonas are there? How many kinds of political segregation, cultural elitism and social exclusion are they under? How many other faces of the moon are there? Barcelona may be a global capital on the world’s trading floors and in the glossy brochures for each big event. But since there’s never history without counterhistory, we can’t explain the Mobile World Congress without the modern slavery of big corporations’ subcontracts or the all-powerful law of silence on coltan mining or overexploitation in the factories of Shenzhen. Can we explain the tourism industry without Les Kellys or toxic social, occupational or ecological side effects? Can we eat whatever we want in a smart city at the cost of instability on wheels? What purchasing level do we need in order to consume in cathedrals of culture? Who are cities of design designed for?

Capital of instability, speculation and inequality

Before us sits a chronicle of foretold political dispossession (if by “political”, we mean the civilized art of avoiding cannibalism) with the most evident and painful contradiction when today, more than yesterday and less than tomorrow, without having learned anything from the devastation of the latest real estate tsunami, there’s no greater transfer of wealth from the bottom up than the one perpetuated again and again through the violated right to housing. It’s hard to look away when faced with the small amount of democratic power currently available to reverse, stop or reduce the new and worrying speculative bubble. Money has more power than people, and that’s no accident: it’s been a constant political decision within the vast sonata of the neoliberal perpetuum mobile, robbing commonly held public institutions of their sovereign power. Global capital, indeed. In the same bill, we pay the gentrified price of being a capital of insecurity, speculation and inequality. Popular culture touched once again by exclusion: Barcelona is only worthwhile if there’s money in your pocket.

In the overtime of the 15-M movement, one of La Vanguardia newspaper’s most frequent columnists announced that the impossible democratic dream of demonstrators was for politics to be more important than the economy, for social urbanism to limit the greed of speculation, for democracy to reign in the insatiable hubris of capitalism. It wasn’t irony, it was frankness; I’d say with a significant dose of official resignation. Just look at the Agbar Group, which underhandedly invested millions of euros to prevent the democratization of city water—the blue gold of the future, in the lingo of economic vultures and investment funds. From this perspective, the evident incompatibility between urban democracy and global capitalism will increase in the future, and cities will be the territory, the battlefield, under dispute. This is fundamentally because of a significant and unsolvable incompatibility, which makes the rule of law and voracious capitalism irreconcilable. The latter always ends up destroying the former, as Santiago Alba Rico reminds us in his increasingly necessary justification of extremes: “capitalism is entirely incapable of imposing limits on itself, and that’s why capitalism is incompatible with laws, with a combination of democracy and law we call the ‘rule of law’. The rule of nature, the rule of war, the rule of hunger, the rule of permanent processes of destitution. It’s incompatible with the establishment of what the lambs demand of the lions, what the weak demand of the strong.” Callicles versus Socrates, once again, in the middle of the city: the Greek aristocrat said that law was an attempt by the weak and the multitude to fence in the hubris of the powerful. That’s why battles for sovereignty —the need to recover it, the commitment to applying it, the initiatives to protect it— directly recall that old debate. This is the tension (right here, right now) between urban democracy and metropolitan capitalism. Who puts the muzzle —how, with what tools and how effectively— on the insatiable beast that wants it all? Who can build inhabitable, sustainable, bearable, lasting cities for their inhabitants? The rampant market or local democracy?

Now that there’s so much talk of identities, closing ourselves off and regression, we should ask ourselves about the quality —and the quantity— of shared democratic identity. In other words, the prevalence of Kant’s illustrated project based on the rule of law. We even need to be careful to stigmatize any demand to return to popular sovereignty as a retreat into authoritarianism, retrotopic uchronia or democratic regression, when often these are initiatives aimed at stopping the unstoppable march of capitalism. Is the call for sovereignty (in the context of the constant erosion and accumulated impotency of the rule of law) an authoritarian, chauvinist step backwards or a transformative, democratizing step forwards? Is it about closing ourselves off or opening ourselves up? A dark cave or shared shelter? Restriction or democratic demand? Identitarian contradiction or rehabilitating response? Or is it both things at once, from positions that are so antagonistic and unequal as right-wing populism and fragile democratic alternatives?

Between managing fear and building hope

In any case, cities are already the preferred scenario for these two conflicts—the management of fear or the building of hope. The announced obsolescence of 19th-century nation-states —decreed by the markets and legislated in the name of competitiveness— has placed us in a new paradigm for the last few decades, and in a brutally regressive circle that announces that, under the current axes of domination, no pacifist, democratic, feminist or ecological alternative exists. Today, in the words of Rafael Poch, the program of De Gaulle’s National Council of the Resistance (schools, hospitals, libraries) would be dubbed radical by any centre of power. What, then, can be done? Can we sketch and build foundations (smart cities or cooperative cities?), as sociologist Ivan Miró would say, in order to escape from the perverse trap that forces us to choose between Hillary or Trump, Macron or Le Pen, progressive neoliberalism or right-wing, authoritarian populism?

Against all of this, it could be said that who has best reflected on the collapse and has worked against the deficits and perversions of the nation-state has been the Kurdish resistance movement with its proposal of democratic confederalism, where municipal government, feminism, environmentalism and communal corporatism become part of daily life in order to guarantee that interdependence and coexistence are made democratic. Nevertheless, processes of change require a triple contradiction: being revolutionary, reformist and conservative all at once. Economic revolutionaries because, as Walter Benjamin would say, we need to apply the emergency brake in view of the voracious nature of global capitalism. And after all, that’s what revolutions are about, about saying enough is enough. Institutional reformists because, more than ever, we need common institutions that allow us to govern ourselves and because in all human communities, as Jorge Reichmann would say, there are two types of smart people: the tyrants, who want to rule it all, and the thieves, who want to keep it all. In standing up to this, we only have two fragile tools: political democracy and the ethics of decency. Anthropological conservatives seeking to preserve the options of a dignified life for all of us because, as ecofeminist activist Yayo Herrero would say, “politics, economy and culture have declared war on life.”

In this debate on the role of cities, it’s worth remembering Italo Calvino and his Invisible Cities once again: “The hell of the living is not something that will be: if there is one, it is what is already here, the hell where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the hell and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and learning: seek and be able to recognize who and what, in the midst of the hell, are not hell, then make them endure, give them space.”

From very different points of view, a broad range of adjectives have been applied to the uncluttered irrationality of 21st-century capitalism: “suicidal”, according to liberal economist Miquel Puig; “senile” according to critic Miren Etxezarreta; “zombie” according to Anton Costas of the Cercle d’Economia. Or even “sadistic”, in the words of Kaurismäki: “capitalism is no more, now there is only sadism.” “We are all in danger”, wrote Passolini. The corrosion of democracy marches on, eating away at the few good things that should be preserved. In fact, it has gone so far that it’s no longer about going someplace better. Rather, it’s about escaping the worst possible place to which we’re being herded. Cities should be the dams that sovereignly hold all this back. In this strange meanwhile —without global governability, with atrophied rule of law— any resistance will be local. Will there be enough, and will it be in time? There’s no way to be sure, but standing up to, dismantling and turning around anti-democratic regression, antisocial backtracking and authoritarian involution will require multiple efforts, shared struggles and reclaimed sovereignty. And all of this before the concept of an open city comes to refer only (in the military vocabulary of a severe defeat) to a city that no longer offers resistance, that no longer has the strength or the means or the sovereignty to defend itself, and that has decided to commit hara-kiri in the face of the voracity of its tormentors.


  • Foc a la barraca. Lo Diable Gros, 2013
  • Cop de CUP (amb Julià de Jodar)Editorial Labutxaca, 2012

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