Notes Towards A Municipalist Cultural Policy – by Marc Herbst

7 03 2018

Editor’s note: Marc Herbst has been researching the Spanish Municipalist Movement since 2013. Property ownership is a central value of capitalist society, and was the basis for the economic crisis that gripped Spain in 2008 when many Spaniards found themselves foreclosed upon by ruling banks. The success of political organizations like The Platform For People Affected By Mortgages (The PAH) and en Comú built upon the cultural move to raise up the renter as a viable and legitimate subjectivity. In this essay Herbst describes what it would be to institutionalize a cultural policy for this diverse and contradictory society. We present this original essay in relationship to Llano Del Rio’s forthcoming Rebel City Los Angeles Guide, which  is partly inspired by Spain’s Municipalist Movement.

A sustained focus allows one to build an argument that your line of thought, more-or-less, overlaps with reality. Though reality always exceeds description, we nevertheless describe and structure things in order to  manage them.

Any people’s common sense ultimately is what policies culture; within the totality of possible behavior their common sense of things defines the ultimate range of “normal” activity. What a formal ‘cultural policy’ allows for is a particular, interested, and systemic effort at intervening in this range of behavior through the force of things named ‘cultural’. Carried out through networked organizations, education, and with mediational, logistical, object-based and discursive encounters– cultural policies work to maintain and develop particular human ways and modes of relationality. Any formal cultural policy draws a  series of cultural, that is, relational, lines within a population that may or may not take up the formal thought as common sense.

This essay confidently describes its fantasy of a Municipalist cultural policy, and is based on observation and conversations conducted between 2013 and 2015. To do so, this essay boldly reflects questions and lines of thought the author developed in relation to the possibility of a renewed left/socialist project grounded in community and city-based practices that can be called Municipalist.

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Question: Do the things we nominate formally as beloved items of culture compose a political cultural policy? 

Formally nominated culture– what is succinctly distinguished as ‘culture’ (this painting, that way of hugging, that sort of meal, this definition of who we are) from the many ongoing ways of socially relating, are the things that ‘we’ come to identify and possibly ‘support’ within the sphere of human relationality. This possible support is impactful because ‘we’ is a slippery slope – relationality aims to form collectivities through mere common sense appreciation of whatever’s been nominated collectively.

The project-nature of a movement has an innately cultural expression, as its political nature is grounded in idealized ways of commonly being (of just being) in the world.

So when an explicitly political movement, grounded in a city and its ways of being kicks off,  it begins as a project that aims to re-organize common sense. The project-nature of a movement has an innately cultural expression, as its political nature is grounded in idealized ways of commonly being (of just being) in the world.

Snapshot 1: Barcelona, an evening street corner, sometime in the Fall of 2014.

I’m in town to participate in a workshop on how neoliberalism seems to disorient individual and collective’s organization of meaningful self- and collective care. It’s late in the day, and we’re stumbling back from the workshop, gleeful and tired.

A friend had joined us. She’d planned on attending the workshop but didn’t. She’s so consumed with organizing the political party that will become the Municipalist Barcelona en Comú. We play an ongoing  game of dreaming what Barcelona’s culture will look like when the party takes hold. A year before she’d introduced me to the Proletkult artists who’d entered factories and design studios in the early Soviet Era to bring art to the masses; so I imagine her measuring the windows of her new Cultural Ministry office in order to install her Popova drapes. We have a good laugh, pantomiming the tearing off of the Second Empire velveteen wallpaper and installing instead a Malevich on the bare plaster. Its funny because I think this is what they can achieve with state-oriented cultural work; she laughs because, as her actions eventually demonstrate, they intend something different.

Snapshot 2: Barcelona, in front of the Catalan Parliament, May 2015.

Its the day after Barcelona en Comú has won the Mayor’s office. I’m continuing research on the The Platform For People Affected By Mortgages (The PAH). As they say, The PAH is the movement where Barcelona’s new mayor, Ada Colau, has learned her “political charisma.” The PAH has been an effective way that common people, faced with eviction and bankruptcy, are able to fight the banks and the city. The ‘common people’ reflects the generality of the crisis within which the PAH developed; the Spanish State steered people into home ownership such that 86% of the population could be said to be homeowners. The mortgage and subsequent rental crisis cut across traditional dividing lines of rich and poor to make it a crisis common to many.

I leave the downtown telephone store, currently occupied by the Telecommunications Union, that had become the unofficial celebration for En Comú’s victory. I head to the Catalan Parliament where The PAH is making its case for their ILP voter-driven referendum. Though Ada Colau was a member of The PAH, it is officially non-partisan. Its strength is partially based on the fact that it is understood to be ‘non-political’; in the Spanish context this means that it addresses common concerns rather than the political talking points of any governing party. PAH members say The PAH is non-political but interested in politics; and though its likely that some savvy political operative hoped to organize a dual-power strategy between Barcelona en Comú and The PAH, this did not happen. Colau seems happy to have The PAH continue outside of and against power as a radical check on her legitimacy.

I sit on a bench outside Parliament beside a PAH member. I know his face but not his name. He’s got a wild head of hair, a little heavyset with a nice smile and a stutter; he greats me. He’s Alberto. He explains that the PAH is presenting their ILP petition to demand an end to foreclosures, to require public housing and a living wage throughout Cataluña. He’s waiting outside while other PAH members have passed security. “I have a knife in my pocket, so they wouldn’t let me in.”  Two police officers stroll by. “They think we’re terrorists” he jokes.

I tell him I’m from L.A.. He tells me that he’s without work, that he lives with his parents who are facing eviction. So his work with The PAH is kind of like keeping up the family business. He asks about the music scene in Los Angeles. He imagines it’d be so cool to catch a concert in the city’s many small clubs. He really likes Led Zeppelin.

Answer: Everyone  loves different things within culture. The particular objects of culture are not necessarily the way to think about what might constitute a cultural policy for a Municipalist movement. Singular things definitionally do not constitute a policy. Policy suggests approaches sustained over time. A cultural policy suggests a networked approach to thinking through cultural work. A cultural policy can enforce the meaning of things through whatever objects, which is one thing capitalism does with the money it puts towards its fine art system. Fine art forwards capitalist policy by equating the speculative value of capital with the value of artistic speculation and free play. But besides making it appear as common to investment in abstract cultural forms, policy can do other things, too.

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Question: What could a Municipalist party hope to relationally re-network and socially develop within a city through cultural work? 

Cultural policy innately reflects the thought of a network, it reflects what any group thinks about and organizes as its cultural way.

In context, when an individual’s interests are obscured by the generality of many individual interests, one can recognize patterns that somehow appear within this pool of interests; particular interests become obscured by more common ways of doing things. These patterns may just be random facts, they may be driven by outside forces, or consciously motivated and organized as a result of networked activity. Cultural policy innately reflects the thought of a network, it reflects what any group thinks about and organizes as its ‘cultural’ way.

Snapshot 3: Barcelona, On the way to and at a lecture at the Universitat Autónoma de Barcelona, January 2015.

The train ride from the neighborhood of Gracia where I’m staying to the leafy campus of the Autonomous University is a little longer than expected. I’ve never been to the campus before, but its train station is designed to account for people like me. There are easy graphic and architectural signals to bring me to the exit; and from this exit I can clearly see the university. When I get to the exit I realize I’ve both underpaid and lost the ticket  I’ll need to swipe to get out. The exit gates are a monstrosity, and constructed in a way that there’s no way to jump it. Contemplating the situation standing beside the gates, I see a guy near me quickly tapping the shoulder of someone else about to exit. They exchange words, and he quickly lines up directly behind the other person so that the two can pass as one through the gate. I’m impressed, and realize I’ve just seen the solution to my problem- then worry how I might communicate this to a stranger and convince them to help me. Instead, I go looking for a machine to buy a new ticket and then ask another stranger where the ticket machine might be. Instead, she motions for me to stand behind her and, just like that, we walk through the gate, two as one.

I continue on to the University to attend a lecture by an economist working with Barcelona En Comú. He’s discussing how En Comú might reconsider the region’s economy in relation to both its economic development and the party’s structure- somehow as one thought. He’s suggesting that the city think through how its economy is imbedded within the region, and how that region does not formally relate directly to the nature of a political map. He understands that while Barcelona is politically a city with limits (it borders other municipalities) its economic interests extend to other regions. Moreover he explains that though the city is organized into neighborhoods that may appear on paper as socio-economically cohesive, they have lost much of the cohesiveness that collective labor practices once created. While one might call a neighborhood “working class”, the practices of solidarity particular to a neighborhood are no longer organized in relation to the logic of any industrial trade or any other quasi-publicly shared life-way. As such, he suggests that the working class in general might prosper, and the party might electorally benefit by thinking through the particularity of networked relations across the space of the city and beyond – not as “blocks of voters” but rather as “fields of particularly organized interests that collectively collaborate in particular modes of social reproduction.”

Snapshot 4: Barcelona, in the neighborhood of Barcelona, January 2015.

I’m in Barceloneta, a neighborhood squeezed between the city’s revamped inner harbor and the beach; the old harbor where many of the residents used to work is now primarily for pleasure boats – the accessible long sandy Mediterranean beach is popular with tourists. I was there for the Siglo XX Social Centrea public design charrette. The Siglo XX is a historic anarchist and working-class club that had been nationalized under Franco, turned into a neighborhood center and then shuttered. The charrette is to figure out how to re-open it as a community center again. The neighborhood somehow holds on to its waterfront anarchist roots, demonstrated by the passion of the 50 or so people there, as the meeting begins with music and speeches in the open-air plaza. Attending are older Spanish men and women and a mix of younger multi-ethnic community members. Broken into two groups, both look at proposed floor plans to suggest ideas for the building.

Barceloneta is feeling the strong squeeze of gentrification – its flats are being turned into tourist accommodations, monetized through the mendaciously named “sharing economy” of Airbnb. In 2014, as two naked Italian tourists strolled the neighborhood for three hours, the neighborhood residents had enough. “Imagine that you’re in a tiny house, with three children, unemployed with no money for vacations and you have to put up with the screams and fiesta of tourists next door. It’s unbearable.” (Kassam 2014)

It is these same residents, up in arms about the deep touristification of their living space, that are re-imagining uses for this buildings.  It’s important to note that though they are balking under the weight of one notion of culture (tourist-oriented capitalist culture), most residents imagine the cultural center fulfilling a distinct cultural need that is also open to tourists. An older man stands up. “My name is Martin, but I think you all know me. Our neighborhood is being overrun by tourists…We need to recuperate the traditional food from here, to communicate it. We need a space for theatre, poetry and a digital communication that is ours.”

The freedom for tourists to walk naked through the streets of this neighborhood is built upon the real and deeply psychological displacement of the residents from their homes and streets. To the tourists, the neighborhood appears empty of social form, a place to be on rather then within.

Answer: At another Barcelona en Comú event, thinkers critically point to the Avenida del Parallel as an example of how total city policy (planning boards, transportation concepts, and cultural funding) literally redesigns itself to accommodate touristic strolls. Barceloneta is a context of seemingly minor differences, where the marketed neoliberal leisure culture bumps up against traditional anti-fascist and anarchist cultures that also hopes to be equally, but differently, accessible to the world. Imbedded in the cultural differences that Barceloneta residents discuss is an acknowledgment that culture and the production of life-ways are tied together in meaningful ways; that if they have more ownership over how they live and openly exchange with the world, it’d all be ok. They could just share their different way of socially and culturally being. A Municipalist cultural policy seems to be concurrent and complimentary to these open ways in which people strive to collaborate with each other, intimately and at a distance, in order to make their lives in generous but meaningful and necessary ways.

Capitalist culture ultimately priorities consumer behavior; within the city, lives must ultimately contend with real estate prices. Though neoliberalism has seemingly eased human relations and has allowed for worldly openings to culture, it has only done so by obscuring boss/employee relationships. It claims to open all life besides capital to capitalist speculation. A Municipalist cultural policy differs, considering other means and ends to culturally experiment with, and through which to formally construct being and doing life across places, for common people, rather than for cultural speculation.  This cultural formalization might co-facilitate how common residents co-produce ways of economically, socially and meaningfully living in, across and beyond the city.

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Cited Bibliography
Kassam, Ashifa (2014) Naked Italians spark protests against antics of drunken tourists in Barcelona. The Guardian [online] 21 August. Available from: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/aug/21/nakeditalians- protests-drunken-tourists-barcelona [Accessed 29 February 2015].

Marc Herbst is a PhD candidate at Goldsmiths University, a Fellow at the Humboldt Area People’s Archive and a co-editor at the Journal of Aesthetics & Protest. He co-edited and released, in collaboration with Minor Compositions, Situating Ourselves in Displacement on politics, being and dispossession with the Murmurae collective, and importantly, published Michele Teran’s translation of Ada Colau and Adria Alemany’s  Spanish language Mortgaged Lives. His PhD thesis, A cultural policy of the multitude in the time of climate change; with an understanding that the multitude has no cultural policy, partially looks at the Barcelona-based PAH. 

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