David Hamou and Ida Susser: Where to Catalonia?: Is this commoning? What for independence?

As we sit here in Barcelona, a historic center of anarchism and left resistance, the questions debated in the most recent Focaal special section “Exploring the urban commons” confront us. As demonstrators take to the streets following the unauthorized referendum for Catalonian independence, many of the people involved are fighting for a new independent state, others are demanding a people’s right to choose, and still others are protesting police brutality and the legacy of Franco represented by the current ruling party. Is this an instance of commoning, or is it an instance of nationalist exclusivity? The dilemma of the relation of nationalism to progressive liberation is an old one, but always historically contingent, and appearing in a new form in this exploration of the commons.

There has been much discussion about the common/commoning and a growing interest among activists seeking a praxis that does not lead to stultifying oppressive states and at the same time promotes the principle of self-government and institutional creativity. This vision of commoning as a political praxis of self-governed coactivity and co-obligation means to break away from the logic of state sovereignty as top-down management of society (Dardot and Laval 2014). A central question for Stavrides (2015) and this Focaal issue concerns how to practice commoning without creating closed exclusive groups that may claim territory and resources but shut others out or precipitate a group of second-class citizens of immigrant laborers. In the current Focaal issue, we argue that the concept of an open commons is possible. In contrast to a closed exclusive commons, a commons without borders has been conceptualized as a commons based on thresholds (Stavrides 2015) that connect internationally linked networks, sometimes visualized as “a municipalism of the common”—as illuminated in a piece by Hamou (forthcoming) on fearless cities, and summarized here. As we describe below, in Catalonia, the “Commons”—Barcelona en Comú and Catalunya en Comú—now in alliance with Podemos for the 21 December elections, refuse to be part of the “blocs” (the unilateral independence bloc and the constitutional bloc) and are building on a non-nationalist version of Catalan sovereignties.

Events leading up to current conflict

The situation of division that Catalonia now faces is the result of several years of stalling between the central government and the Catalan authorities. In June 2006, 73.23 percent of the 48.8 percent of the Catalans who participated in the referendum voted in favor of the new Statute of Autonomy of Catalonia. But in 2010, after the right-wing Partido Popular (Popular Party), which came to power in 2011, legally contested it, the Constitutional Court of Spain declared unconstitutional the major part of the new statute, including the article inscribing the concept of “Catalan people” in the statute. This decision provoked a wave of protest around Catalonia, and every year since then on Catalonia Day (11 September). In 2015, the right-wing independentist Catalan government got a tiny majority—in alliance with the anticapitalist party, the Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP)—which enabled them to implement their independentist agenda and to call for the 1 October referendum. Unlike the previous vote, this referendum was not approved by the national government and was regarded by the Spanish parliament as illegal.

The Spanish government took an unremitting authoritarian approach to the challenge of the Catalan independentist movement. Police brutality during the 1 October elections paved the way for an ongoing repressive strategy. The Spanish government’s suspension of Catalan autonomy by using Article 155 of the Constitution and the incarceration of the democratically elected Catalan government form part of this aggressive strategy, violating basic human rights.

In this situation, some of the progressive movements in Catalonia, including the CUP, consider separation from Spain as the only possible way to get rid of the post-Francoist regime of 1978. This small fraction of the independence movement in Catalonia was formed earlier but also incorporated the energy of 15-M, the mass demonstrations protesting austerity in 2011 (see Susser 2017). CUP demonstrators are clearly standing up to an oppressive national government. Barcelona en Comú and Podemos, which support self-determination for Catalonia but are not independentist, see themselves as transforming Spain toward a more equitable and transparent democracy, but CUP sees such transformation as facilitated by an independent Catalonia in which democratic participation will be promoted free of the heritage of Franco, the transition, and the current conservative state.

The sense of hopelessness toward a Spanish state and a Constitution that may seem immovable and unable to cope with democratic challenges has been the main engine to shift popular opinion in favor of independentist aspirations. Indeed, most stages of the independentist process, and especially the 1 October elections, would not have been possible without strong support from some neighborhood movements and self-organized citizens.

Unilateral independence bloc: Toward a social republic or another state sovereignty?

But the anticapitalist perspective on independence (represented by the CUP) is in a minority both in the independentist coalition and in public opinion. The ruling Catalan European Democratic Party, PDeCAT (formerly called Convergència i Unió), is a neoliberal party that has implemented austerity policies in Catalonia. In fact, it made the decision to send the Catalan police to brutally quell the protesters during the 15-M. This party saw independence as an opportunity for less regulation and the opening of a wider neoliberal market. It was also tainted by huge scandals of corruption.

The policy of the now ex-government of Catalonia in the field of human and social rights has been clearly regressive. In Barcelona, the processes of gentrification and touristification of the city are attracting financial capital and creating a new speculative real estate bubble. In this context, rent regulation seems to be an indispensable policy to guarantee the right to housing. Barcelona City Council has tried to implement this measure, but this policy must be decided at the regional level, and the Catalan government ruled by PDeCAT has refused to implement it so far. Another example of this regressive policy is the proposition of law to modify Law No. 1/2000 on Civil Procedure presented by the PDeCAT in March 2016. This proposition introduces a new regulation against squatting and increases the lack of protection for people in the process of losing their homes. Under these conditions, a national victory for Catalonia does not necessarily facilitate the anticapitalist aspirations of the CUP or represent a new opportunity for the practice of an open common.

Moreover, as we follow the situation with commoning in mind, we must ask if the very project of building a new nation-state at a smaller scale but without transforming its structure may be a turn to a risky form of exclusivity and authority. The political principle of the common has emerged from social struggles against both the private and the state appropriation of spaces and resources (Dardot and Laval 2014).

In that sense, Catalan nationalism can be seen as being opposed to commoning, as it provokes a certain degree of reification of identities. According to Dardot and Laval, the common can be defined not by belonging to the same territorial unit, community, or identity but only by active participation in the same activity: “The common has to be thought of as co-activity, and not as co-belonging, co-property or co-possession” (Dardot and Laval 2014: 48; my translation). Following this perspective on commoning, building a new Catalan nation-state might reproduce the top-down hierarchical structure of power without questioning it. Even if there is a great temptation to leave the Spanish vessel, raising one flag against another, one hymn against another, one “nation” against another, may simply elect a new exclusivity without a transformation of state powers.

Hundreds of thousands of people march through the streets of Barcelona during the general strike in Catalonia, called as protest against police violence during the day of the referendum on independence of Catalonia (photograph by Adolfo Lujan, via Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Hundreds of thousands of people march through the streets of Barcelona during the general strike in Catalonia, called as protest against police violence during the day of the referendum on independence of Catalonia (photograph by Adolfo Lujan, via Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

On 15 June 2011, during the 15-M Movement, there was a call to “Stop the Parliament” (“Aturem el Parlament”). Thousands of indignados blocked access to the regional parliament in an attempt to prevent the government from voting for the regional budget that included harsh cuts. Six years later, on 10 October 2017, when the Catalan government was about to declare independence, protesters gathered around the Catalan parliament again, but this time under the slogan “It’s time for democracy! Let’s support the parliament.” From “Stop the Parliament” to “Support the Parliament” lies a path that goes from a radical transformation of democratic forms to a renewed support of the same institutions that have not been transformed in any way and continue to implement harsh neoliberal policies.

Catalunya en Comú: The commons beyond the blocs?

The confrontation between two nationalisms, Spain and Catalan, is a welcome distraction for two conservative parties that have been discredited by years of regressive policies and corruption scandals. Indeed, the debate about social policy and inequalities has been inaudible throughout the independentist process.

As noted earlier, aside from the “unilateral independence bloc” of Catalan and the “constitutional bloc” of the current government of Spain, there is another rising political space that considers itself part of the commons movement: the municipalism of the commons. This bottom-up movement, which came to municipal power with the election of Ada Colau as mayor of Barcelona in 2015, is now challenged and threatened by the independentist process. In Catalonia, the partisans of the municipalism of the common have sided with a strategy that extends the two blocs, and are building on a non-nationalist version of Catalan sovereignties.

In 2011, the 15-M Movement gathered hundreds of thousands of people in the squares of more than a hundred cities in Spain. The precariat, weary of several years of crisis, surged into the streets, not to protest yet again but to reappropriate public space (Susser 2017). One of the most emblematic political slogans of this moment was “They don’t represent us” (“No nos representan”). This uprising inspired citizen platforms, created by participants in the 15-M Movement, members of social movements, and people affected by the crisis. Defying traditional parties, the new platforms surprisingly won the 2015 municipal elections in 16 cities in Spain, including Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia, Zaragoza, and Cadiz.

Whereas, at the national level, Podemos is struggling to come to power, the municipal level is another facet of this political renewal. Municipalism draws its strength and takes its principles from experiences of rebellion through the ballot. First of all, municipalism is based on the local level, as it is inspired by social movements. But this local government must be self-governing: people should make decisions for their own daily life. This is why municipalism includes other forms of participation, beyond representative elections. This bottom-up policy must be implemented from the relationships that bring people together in neighborhoods. To implement this policy, the new municipalism is interested in maintaining close ties between those who are inside and those who are outside political institutions (social movements, organized citizenry, and civil society).

This municipalist laboratory, which is testing its own capacity to bring change from within the institutions, is now challenged by the independentist movement. On 12 November 2017, Barcelona en Comú’s militant base voted to end the political pact with the PSC (Partit dels Socialistes de Catalunya, closed to the Spanish Social Workers’Pparty [PSOE] that voted in favor of Article 155 at the national level), leaving Barcelona City Council as ruled by a minority government. This new situation will further complicate an inventive political experience that was already muzzled by the system of alliances within City Hall and by confrontation with the government of Catalonia. In this context of amputated competence of the municipal scale, and in view of the forthcoming regional elections on 21 December, the partisans of the municipalism of the common decided to create a new political party, Catalunya en Comú, whose objective is to scale-up municipalism to the region.

As mayor of Barcelona, Ada Colau wants her political movement to be “involved in the construction of new scenarios of self-government that give us more democracy, and not less  ” (Eldiario 2017). She calls for “ni DUI ni 155”—neither DUI (Unilateral Declaration of Independence) nor 155 (removal of Catalonia’s autonomy by using Article 155 of the Constitution). The position of the municipalism of the common could be summarized by this statement.

The supporters of municipalism promote the right of the Catalan people to decide their status, but a radical change for them would be a shift from the state sovereignty to a narrative of sovereignties, in plural and with a lowercase “s.” In an interview by the P2P Foundation, Joan Subirats, an academic who is close to Catalunya en Comú, specifies this shift: “We want to recover the collective capacity to decide what affects us. So it’s fine to talk about the sovereignty of Catalonia, but we also need to talk about digital sovereignty, water sovereignty, energy sovereignty, housing sovereignty—sovereignty in the sense of the capacity to decide over that which affects us” (Ambrosi and Thede 2017). This vision based on social rights is much closer to what the practice of open commons could be. Indeed, this collective empowerment can be likened to the principle of the common as self-government. To “recover the collective capacity to decide over” the water, for instance, involves struggling against the private appropriation of water by big firms, which restricts the access to this resource, but also struggling against the hierarchical state management of water, which restricts the democratic running of this resource. Water sovereignty, thus, can be seen as the common self-government over a common resource. The political obligation between citizens would be based no longer on a national identity but rather on a free will coactivity. Hence, the core of the discussion would move from “independence” to “interdependencies”: “We are very interdependent, so how do we choose our interdependencies? That would be real sovereignty, not to be independent because that’s impossible, but rather how to better choose your interdependencies so that they have a more public content” (Ambrosi and Thede 2017).By creating Catalunya en Comú, supporters of the municipalism of the common are trying to scale up their challenges. Municipalism was born in the cities because municipal institutions were seen as less petrified in the strong inertia of political institutions. But is it possible to change public regional institutions into more common institutions? Can the common bring a real political “alteration”[1] of an institution such as the Catalan parliament? At the city scale, Barcelona en Comú was run by neighborhood committees, but how can a bottom-up regional party deal with the distance from its bases? Those are some of the main challenges Catalunya en Comú might face.

A new fearless cities alliance

If the city and the regional scales represent an opportunity for experimenting with open commons, there is also a need to circumvent the nation-state from above by building an international alliance that connects and strengthens local commoning experiences. Certainly, every struggle follows its own logic, and popular resistance movements must adopt political strategies adapted to the local context. But all across the globe, urban movements emerge and organize around similar principles: local radical democracy, commons, self-government, relationships with social movements, feminization of politics, reception of refugees. Is it time to create spaces to encounter, to meet up, and to pool what is known, to discover new affinities that would be the basis of joint action?

The International Municipalist Summit of Fearless Cities that took place in Barcelona 9–11 June 2017 provided the opportunity to create a new translocal network. Radical social movements and representatives of new municipalist citizen platforms from 180 cities from more than 40 countries and 5 continents gathered at this event, including activists from the new self-governed Kurd communes in Northern Syria, from the struggle for the municipalization of water in Zagreb City, from the fight against white supremacy in the United States, and from the feminization of politics in Barcelona City Council.

The Fearless Cities summit brought together not only points of view but also practical experiences and strategic decisions. Indeed, this new international commoning alliance takes up the challenge of a loose, active, and nonhierarchical network: “To explain this idea, it’s important to underline that by ‘network’ we mean a way of working, rather than a formal structure. And we are not referring to an institutional network of cities. Rather, we mean a political space made up of movements and organizations that may be in government, opposition or not participate in electoral politics at all” (Shea Baird et al. 2016).The alliance of fearless cities could therefore be a sharing of experiences giving rise to a new action coalition. In this way, municipalist partisans hope to avoid the trap of local isolation while at the same time anchoring radical democracy at a local level by reinventing the sharing of power between political institutions and social movements and building an internationalist alternative that goes beyond the nation-state.

In conclusion, the question of the commons and commoning in Barcelona is a strategic challenge. Would an independent Catalunya provide the space for a more horizontalist, redistributive political state, or would it simply become a new territory for neoliberal control by the current majority parties? Alternatively, does the ongoing struggle for the commons represented by Barcelona en Comú and now, Catalunya en Comú, represent a new avenue for the building of a new political party that, in collaboration with Podemos, would actually transform the legislative and political arena throughout Spain? We would suggest that the current conflict over Catalan independence may be to some extent a diversion from the potential for political transformation that is represented by the ongoing struggle of Catalunya en Comú and Podemos.

David Hamou is a PHD researcher at the Sophiapol Laboratory in the Department of Sociology at the Universitè Paris Nanterre.  His research lines include commoning, non-state institutions, social movements, and legal struggle for social rights in Southern Europe and South America. He is a collaborator of the Observatori Desc in Barcelona, where he has published special reports on economic, social, and cultural rights. He has previously undertaken field research in Argentina and France on ethnic minorities’ political and corporal struggles.

Ida Susser is Professor of anthropology at Hunter College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. She has conducted ethnographic research on the politics of the urban, the environment and health. Her recent publications include Norman Street: Poverty and Politics in an Urban Neighborhood (updated edition, 2012) featuring a section on “Claiming a Right to New York City,” AIDS, Sex, and Culture: Global Politics of Survival in Southern Africa (2009), and the coedited volumes Rethinking America: The Imperial Homeland in the 21st Century (with Jeff Maskovsky, 2009) and Wounded Cities: Destruction and Reconstruction in a Globalized World (with Jane Schneider, 2003).


[1] Foucaldian concept that was updated by Pierre Sauvêtre (2015) to describe the political movement of the common.


Ambrosi, Alain, and Nancy Thede. 2017. Catalunya en Comú: Building a country in common(s)—Interview with Joan Subirats. P2P Foundation, 20 April. https://blog.p2pfoundation.net/catalunya-en-comu-building-country-commons-interview-joan-subirats/2017/06/10.

Dardot, Pierre, and Laval Christian. 2014. Commun: Essai sur la revolution au XXIe sièle. Paris: La Découverte.

Eldiario. 2017. Ada Colau: “No en mi nombre: Ni 155 ni DUI.” 27 October. http://www.eldiario.es/catalunya/politica/MINUTO-Diada_13_685361458_14913.html.

Hamou, David. Forthcoming. Municipalisme du commun: Vers une alliance transnationale des “villes sans peur.” In L’alternative du commun.

Sauvêtre, Pierre. 2015. Foucault avec Marx: La pratique altératrice comme praxis révolutionnaire et les lutes contemporaines pour le commun. In Marx & Foucault: Lectures, usages, and confrontations, ed. Christian Laval, Luca Paltrinieri, and Ferhat Taylan, 272–285. Paris: La Découverte.

Shea Baird, Kate, Enric Bárcena, Xavi Ferrer, and Laura Roth. 2016. Why the municipal movement must be internationalist. Medium, 21 December. https://medium.com/@BComuGlobal/why-the-municipal-movement-must-be-internationalist-fc290bf779f3.

Stavrides, Stavros. 2015. Common space as threshold space: Urban commoning in struggles to re-appropriate public space. Footprint: Delft Architecture Theory Journal 16. doi:10.7480/footprint.9.1.896.

Susser, Ida. 2017. Commoning in New York City, Barcelona, and Paris: Notes and observations from the field. Focaal 79: 6–22.

Cite as: Hamou, David, and Ida Susser. 2017. “Where to Catalonia?: Is this commoning ? What for independence?” FocaalBlog, 11 December. www.focaalblog.com/2017/12/11/david-hamou-and-ida-susser-where-to-catalonia-is-this-commoning-what-for-independence.