Dissecting Butterflies

When I do these translations about 15-M, I try to pick out stuff that is as relevant as possible to an English language readership with an interest in politics in Ireland. In doing so I’m not implying “hey – we all should be doing this!” but setting out stuff that for whatever reason –political culture, small country, different history- doesn’t seem to have any counterpart here. The intention is to introduce people to voices and ideas they mightn’t otherwise encounter. If you find it useful let me know. If you would like to know more about some area in particular, let me know.

This one here talks about the role of intellectuals in the 15-M movement, but also about how the political encounters of the assembly do not fit, nor should they be corralled, into the sort of conventional framework and categories habitually used for radical political organization. I am not quite sure how relevant this is to Ireland, what with there not being a great deal of intellectuals in public circulation. Nonetheless I think there are some interesting thoughts and some important details about the movement in this piece, originally published on Rebelión by Luis Martín Cabrera.

(image via.)

Intellectuals and 15-M: a modest proposal for our self-abolition.

This is not another article about the future of the 15-M movement, nor is it a more accurate theoretical diagnosis than others currently online. It is neither a prediction of the future nor a final analysis, but an attempt at an opening, to fuel the fires of rebellion and change, a modest contribution of someone who only wants to be an anonymous worker whose work is to write.

In recent months rivers of ink have flowed over what the 15-M movement is and what it is not. In a well-intentioned –but not always generous- way, some people have sought to see in the assemblies in the squares the confirmation of all their theories: they are communists, they are children of the enlightenment, it is the multitude in uprising on its immanent ground to put an end to capitalism, even the beehive without workers or queen. Others, in a less well intentioned way, have shouted “they are Rubalcaba’s[i] puppets”, “perroflautas”[ii] (what fascist mind could have invented this neologism!) “ETA infiltrators”. And, finally, more than a few sectors of the left, victims of millenarian conspiracy theories that supply power with a rationality that it fortunately does not have, have seen the 15-M as being consecrated by Punset and his disciples in the new faith of the mass communicators, the apotheosis of the new style book of reinvented capitalism.

It is logical that we all want to be right, we all want to see in the 15-M the confirmation of our view of the world and our longings. Everyone –and by everyone I refer here above all to the intellectuals –we want to give advice, to direct, to show, “not this way”, “this way”, “our historical experience says that..”, “don’t be naïve”. We even publish books to say “we had already told you about this”, “at last people are paying attention to me” and we don’t realise that to fill libraries with new books is not to change reality. We don’t realise that talking this way, looking in this way at the square, we are nothing more than entomologists that dissect the insurrection just as one might pull an insect apart. Angeles Díez –my personal sociologist- tells me that the most opportunistic or the most unconsciously reactionary are already dreaming about the moment when the 15-M no longer exists on the squares in order to exist solely in the libraries, a dissected butterfly, but above all, wishful thinking[iii].

However, the moment has come to invert one’s gaze, the time has come to suspend the infinite enjoyment that intellectual voyeurism provides, for a minute let us stop looking obsessively at the square, let us invert our field of vision, let us look now at ourselves looking, or even better, let us allow once and for all that the 15-M movement look at us, let us be objects and not merely subjects of analysis. To do this we could start by reading a now classic book by Francis Fox Piven and Richard Cloward – Poor People’s Movements – about the successes and failures of social movements in the United States. In this book one can read how historically grassroots social movements – the union movement in the 30s or the civil rights movement in the 60s- made their biggest gains in the moment of the insurrection and they blow out and lose their force when the leaders try to orientate and structure the protest. Many times with the best of intentions the leaders of these movements brought people off the street to shut them up in offices, they called off protests to edit statutes and form organisations that ended up being co-opted by elites that are always more calm when they know who they have to deal with and how much a leader is worth.

The theses of Fox Piven and Cloward are of course highly debatable; and whilst it is indeed true that at times a powerful, structured vanguard organisation such as the Spanish Communist Party (PCE) during the dictatorship can be a tool of effective resistance, many other times the “organisation”, “the structure”, the “leaders”, “the party vanguard” and the “list of demands” can be a way of domesticating the insurrection (the history of the PCE itself during the transition is not far from this catastrophe). In this sense, the media and politicians are dying to put a face and a price on the leaders of the 15-M, but the movement has  done something much more important, it has stolen Politics[iv] (with a capital letter and feminine) from politicians[v] (in lower case and masculine) just as fire is stolen from the gods, and while doing so has created new ways of speaking – “Democracy under construction, sorry for the inconvenience” –and a new time for decision making removed from the accelerated time of the markets, “we’re going slow because we’re going far”.

This new form of politics should not disown the strong tradition of struggle that exists in Spain and in other places, but nor should it pledge allegiance to it, because at the very least it has created, in its own right, a space –the assembly- where the following can be heard:

  • An activist from a residents’ association explain how they defended a public school in Carabanchel from closure, because residents’ associations can be a powerful form of organisation based on the knowledge that living with others brings.
  • A feminist explaining why domestic labour and care for the vulnerable is in the majority of cases unpaid and carried out by women because our constructs of gender have convinced us that domestic labour is not labour and care is a natural inclination of women.
  • Two militants from the anti-racist brigades explaining how they intervene in order to stop the detention and mistreatment of undocumented immigrants; explaining what a CIE, an Internment Centre for Foreigners is, a mini Guantanamo that should also outrage us.
  • A group of students from Juventud sin future [Youth without future] explaining that as long as we live in a capitalist world young people can have neither a present nor a future, they can only live in a time of precarity and uncertainty.
  • Someone else talking about banks and politicians like them, and of people who are sitting in the square like us. Us against Them, the square, us, against them and their capitalist patriarchy.
  • Someone who was interned in a psychiatric hospital talks about the need to question normality and straitjackets.
  • Someone who asks for a minute’s silence for the disappeared under Francoism and who recounts that the building in front of us was the Security Headquarters, a torture centre.

All this and much more I was able to listen to in a day during the alternative debate on the State of the Nation in the Puerta del Sol, and without attending on the first day, when the proposals for the economy, education and health were being debated. Is this not an event in itself? Do we really need to insist on “organizing” this explosion of Politics out of fear of the future?

Eduardo Hernández recounts that in the few months of the movement’s life, many of the bourgeois conventions that defined the public sphere have been broken: people no longer applaud he or she who speaks well, or he or she who exhibits cultural capital, or rather they are not applauded simply for that. People applaud those who get more nervous or who lack cultural capital or words and facts, so that they can express what they have to express with their own words, which are worth as much or more than those of a university professor.

Those who speak in the squares are not nobodies, they are Esther, Juan, or perhaps Silvia from the residents’ association in Vallecas. In the squares the intellectuals have to wait their turn the same as everyone else and they have no surname or CV. It is logical that many intellectuals get nervous, accustomed as we are that we are immediately given the floor, the authority and the pulpit. And this is why it is doubly pathetic to hear Agustín García Calvo –with all due respect for his achievements- pontificating in the square and giving instructions to the assembly not to propose anything, because to propose is to fall into the language of the father, of the State, of the order that one is trying to combat.  If he himself cannot see that “what we have left of the people”, to use a concept of his, are these assemblies, he must be either blind or he must prefer the libertarian cliques he presides over so patriarchally.

And sadly García Calvo is not alone in his enlightened[vi] delirium, the intellectuals of the manifesto “A shared dream” take up a position that is equally enlightened and despotic by signing a manifesto that oozes a left-liberal opportunist stink that bowls one over. But how can these people sign a manifesto as though they were a historical vanguard when up until a few days back many of the signatories were supporting a government that had put in place the most regressive and reactionary measures of the last 20 years? How can they speak as if they were promoters and inventors of a rebuilding of the left when the 15-M caught them having drinks in Cannes or enjoying the royalties of their last book courtesy of the Sinde Law they defended to the hilt in their weekly column? This “shared dream” must be one of remaining “professional leftists” in case the cry of “they don’t represent us” starts to apply to them too.

Others with sufficient cultural capital to burn, such as Fernando Savater can allow themselves to engage directly in the epistemic violence that their platform provides, and pass off asseverations such as “the 15-M has been a useful idiot-meter to measure the level of stupidity and cynicism of certain people” as philosophy. Faced with so much gall and absurdity all that remains for us is to declassify ourselves as intellectuals, cut ourselves off completely from this herd of enlightened despots and apostles of banality and opportunism. At any rate, as intellectuals we are mutilated beings. Antonio Gramsci warned already that every man is an intellectual, since men and women who do not have ideas about the world they live in do not exist, since only the artificial and violent separation between manual and intellectual work has made it possible for intellectuals to exist with the time and sufficient privileges to dedicate themselves professionally to thinking, reading and writing.

And so, the more 15-M advances, the more necessary it will be to abolish ourselves, not out of “anti-intellectualism” but because the most intellectual thing we can do right now is, even though the ego might resent it, go along to the assemblies, bring whatever it is we can to the commissions with humility, to listen face-to-face[vii], to speak without surname or qualification and, at most, feel proud of what we can do the same way as a carpenter feels proud of the table he has built. Workers with words, not respectable gentry, to each according to her need, from each according to her skills.


[i] Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba, former Interior Minister and present PSOE prime ministerial candidate for next elections.

[ii] Literally, ‘dogflutes’. Contemptuous neologism coined for particular type of people with dress and comportment deemed to be unconventional, apparently identifiable by their flutes (normally recorders and tin whistles) and their dogs.

[iii] In English in the original

[iv]La Política’, in the original.

[v]Los politicos’, in the original.

[vi]Iluminista’ – the reference is to the enlightenment, but implying a de haut en bas the-masses-must-be-improved disposition

[vii] In the original, ‘de tú a tú’, implying dispensing with formal address

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1 Response to “Dissecting Butterflies”


  1. 1 T July 21, 2011 at 4:54 am

    Thanks for translating… This is great.


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