Barcelona En Comú: party vs. movement

Translated from an article published in Públic on 12 May 2017

Eloísa Piñeiro Orge, Activist and member of the Executive Board of Barcelona en Comú

Is Barcelona en Comú a political party? Legally, yes. However, many of its activists feel uncomfortable about calling this space of political participation a ‘party’, and choose to use other terms, such as ‘organization’, ‘space’, or simply ‘BComú’.

Party, movement or institution

Of course, the word ‘party’ has negative baggage, particularly in a political culture impregnated with the recent memory of the indignados. But it’s true that the word ‘party’ isn’t quite right, or enough to describe what Barcelona en Comú is, in terms of both its behavior as a political actor, which goes beyond an electoral tool related solely to institutional governance, and in terms of its internal rules in deliberation and participation processes. These rules provide checks and balances and open up decision-making spaces that seek to distance Barcelona en Comú from classic party structures and thereby increase its capacity for action, a key element of our ultimate goal: the defense of the commons.

However, while it works at the margins of the logic of classic political parties, we can’t quite call Barcelona en Comú a movement. Its structure and internal rules, recognized by its activists, the definition of its goals in annual plans and its tools for communication and collective action aren’t those of a social movement. Precisely because of all these elements, BComú has become an institution, and this shouldn’t be seen as a disadvantage, quite the opposite.

Elinor Ostrom, in Understanding Institutional Diversity, defines institutions as “prescriptions that humans use to organize all forms of repetitive and structured interactions including those within families, neighborhoods, markets, firms, sports leagues, churches, private associations, and governments at all scales.” Individuals interacting within rule-structured situations, says Ostrom, “face choices regarding the actions and strategies they take, leading to consequences for themselves and for others.”

During its more than two years of life, Barcelona en Comú’s activists have participated in actions that are the embryo for change we’ve always longed for, and which would be impossible from outside political institutions.

A living organism

Beyond the technical question of what kind of organism BComú is or isn’t, what’s clear is that it is a living organism and, as such, it breathes the same political oxygen as the other parties, local institutions and social and neighbourhood movements in the city. BComú has to decide how to coexist and interact with them all. BComú itself is a space made up of activists with backgrounds in the struggle for the commons, neighbourhood associations, feminism, ecology, internationalism, workers’ rights, and the fight for democracy. Many of them are active inside and outside BComú at the same time, something which some describe as a ‘schizophrenic’ relationship, while others are pragmatic, using BComú (in a positive way) to multiply the capacity for transformation and influence of other organizations in the city. In this way, BComú meets its transformative goals by means of a relationship with movements that is in constant creation, doubt and critical reflection; uncomfortable when it’s not contradictory and overwhelming.

It’s not up to us to decide whether we’re a movement or an instrument, because this choice, which seems compulsory to us, and which hangs over our heads, is a trap that prevents us from being free and taking the action we want to take. We have to move from one side to the other, acting as a porous interface between institutions of government and institutions of the commons, being more movement at some times and more party in others. Above all, we must seek the cracks in the institutional structures of government and in the suffocating political-institutional fight, in order to go beyond the transformational capacity of traditional parties. We’ll only know who we are from our potential for action. That’s what the activists of BComú are engaged in every day, uninhibited in the institutional sphere, but less so when we act beyond it. We mustn’t allow ourselves to be dragged down; we’ve got to keep working to create active affection and transformative joy.