Archive for May, 2011

David Norris and Ireland’s sordid media culture

This morning I turned on the Pat Kenny show to hear David Norris vehemently rebutting insinuations made, apparently on the back of a Liveline feature yesterday focusing on an article written some ten years back, that he approved of paedophilia in some shape or form.

It made for disturbing listening, not on account of anything in particular Norris himself had said, either in the original article (which to my eyes looks very much of a hit job consciously designed to tease out some sort of previously unseen seamy side to Norris), but for the very fact that he felt obliged to come on national radio and say it.

The disturbing listening was compounded by the fact that Norris felt obliged to admit to  foolishness regarding the remarks he had made to his original interviewer. Since the content of his original discussion was wide-ranging  and academic in character, he claimed he should have borne in mind the potential for them to be distorted once released for public consumption. This is appalling. I do not blame David Norris for this, but to be held back by the idea that one should refrain from saying a particular thing for fear of having one’s reputation destroyed, simply because what is said offers potential for widespread distortion and manipulation to suit a particular agenda, is to be held back by a highly corrosive form of censorship.

The fact that a person feels they have to refrain from expressing an opinion, however reasonable that opinion might turn out to be on deeper examination, because they know the country’s political media apparatus will seize on it, turn it into a media event and use it to manipulate public perceptions, is an indication that something is seriously wrong with the ownership and control of news media.

You are probably aware of the refrain that politicians who complain about the media are like sailors who complain about the sea, but the difference between the sea and the character of media institutions is that the latter are subject to human agency and control. Therefore if media institutions generate an event, there are particular motivations at stake. To treat these motivations as naturally occurring phenomena, as the adage recommends, is to disregard, and in so doing submit to, the illegitimate authority of these institutions. It was a disgrace, but not a surprise, that when Norris admitted he had been foolish, public broadcaster Pat Kenny did not seek to probe precisely why he had been foolish to say such a thing, and in whose interest it might be, giving Norris the benefit of the doubt that he had not actually done anything wrong, that his words might be distorted.

Consider this characteristically disgusting article by Fionnan Sheahan, which claims that Norris’s ‘prospects of being a presidential election candidate were thrown into doubt last night’ on the back of the ‘controversial comments’ that had ‘come back to haunt him’. Sheahan knows full well that an important -if not the most important- element of the ‘haunting’ are in the reproduction of these comments and assessment of their potential impact as mere factual, dispassionate objective reporting. But in reality, political correspondents such as Sheahan are the very same people who decide what comments haunt whom and to what measure, and even shape the perception of how those people are haunted by these comments, such as in the phrase that Norris had ‘gone to ground’ as though he were a fugitive who had opted not to respond to criminal accusations. Sheahan and others hide behind this veneer of objectivity and factuality to manipulate perceptions of the political landscape, in the manner that they and their employers see fit.

There are echoes here of the Wikileaks ‘controversy’ last year when ‘revelations’ that Bertie Ahern suspected the SF leadership of responsibility of the Northern Bank robbery were now going to come back and haunt Sinn Fein, even when the knowledge of this suspicion had been in the public domain ever since Bertie Ahern had himself announced them when the Northern Bank robbery took place.

I don’t care much for Norris’s presidential campaign, in fact I see the presidential campaign as mostly pointless, but no matter: this strikes me as a sadistic hit job intended to restrict the spectrum of public political voices in Ireland to those who are completely subservient to market imperatives and to the prevailing macho, anti-intellectual, pro-ignorance, ball-scratching, heterosexist, misogynist, yawping, ‘objective’, ‘realist’ culture of the political correspondent, the right-wing reactionary pundit and the media oligarch. Therefore any competing presidential campaign that fails to issue a robust denunciation of Norris’s treatment should be considered complicit with it.

Castells on #wikiacampadas: going slow because they’re going far

Translation of a piece by pre-eminent communications theorist Manuel Castells, originally published in La Vanguardia. I haven’t bothered to translate acampada because I think that it is likely to be one of those words that, in years to come, will get imported into English untranslated, like soviet. It is a useful corrective to certain cloth-eared assessments of the protests in Spain that would characterise them as some sort of impotent half-cry half-grunt toward heaven from the swinish multitude who just won’t accept the panglossian prescriptions of sighing neo-lib reality dwellers.


And all of a sudden the hollow singsong of the electioneering speech became unbearable. In the midst of an unceasing crisis, with 21% unemployment, 45% youth unemployment, cuts in living standards for many and fat profits for a few, impunity for the corrupt and privileges for a caste of untouchable politicians, the disgust became a network. A little before the municipal elections on the 22nd of May, [literally, don’] had 700,000 unique users, 154 blogs and 641,000 results in Google. In that atmosphere of outrage were germinated the ideas for the manifesto of Democracia Real Ya, a collective created in Madrid, which ended by saying “An Ethical Revolution is necessary. We have put money above human beings and we must put it at our service. We are people, not products of the market. For all of the above, I am outraged. I believe I can change it. I believe I can help. I know that united we can do it. Come out with us. It’s your right”. And on the 15-M they came out, tens of thousands of them, in Madrid, Barcelona and many other cities. At the end, in Madrid a few spent the night in the Puerta del Sol, and the following day some more in Barcelona on the Plaza Catalunya. They talked, they dreamed and they tweeted their networks of friends. The next day they were hundreds. Then, thousands. When they were evicted from the Puerta del Sol, many thousands more came. So many, that when the Electoral and the Constitutional Boards declared it illegal to “call for a responsible vote” during the day of of reflection, the police could not impose it. The size of the acampada made it unviable. The acampadas proliferated in Spain and they extended through the world. On the 25th, after the elections received with total indifference in this emerging society, despite the fact that it signaled the total collapse of really inexisting socialism, there were 706 acampadas registered on the map of the globe. (www. thetechnoant. info/ campmap/).

They keep appearing as each locality adds its peaceful, festive and protesting demonstration to the networks weaved between cyberspace and urban space. Media attention helped to broadcast a phenomenon that everyone was in a rush to label, but that few politicians dared to condemn for the moment. It was not a case of the usual suspects. They come from all corners, conditions, ages and social groups. Look at the photos on Flickr ( to perceive the diversity. It soon became clear that there were no leaders. If anyone tried to be one, the acampada deauthorized it. Whilst they were grateful for the services done by Democracia Real Ya, the campers did not accept any logos. In Acampadabcn it was decided that each person represented herself. Everything is worked out through functional, theme-based, autonomous multiple commissions, co-ordinated by an intercommission whose members rotate. The decisions that affect everyone go through the assembly at the end of the day. Motions, organization and tactics are debated. They are intense debates, carried out with respect, creating a new dynamic of gestures to avoid noisy expressions (in the spring air fluttered the hands that wave yes or the sullenly crossed arms of the noes). Swearing was forbidden. Drinking was counselled against, drugs rejected, though the matter is under debate. Any hint of violence is controlled: in the first ten days there was only one incident. Non-violence is a basic principle assumed by all, tested when the authorities have grown tired of being overridden and have taken to dishing out beatings.
Once the elections had passed, the movement extended, concretized, and deepened. It extended through other cities and decentralized itself into neighbourhoods, sketching out mini-acampadas that could even reach as far as places of work. It concretized with each acampada deciding its own objectives, and its organisation and demands were decided. And it deepened through a growing concentration on the programmatic elaboration of objectives. On the 25th AcampadaSol released a document synthesising the motions approved by the assemblies since the 16th: elminiate the privileges of the political class; measures to tackle unemployment, including job sharing and the rejection of the rise in the retirement age as long as there is youth unemployment; right to housing, including the expropriation of unsold housing stock in order to place it on the market under a programme of protected rents; quality public services, including the elimination of wasteful administrative spending, the hire of health and education workers, cheap and eco-friendly public transport, control over banks, constituting a public banking system under the control of society, with those entities that go bankrupt returning to public funds the capital they have received; fiscal reform, raising taxes on the very wealthy and on banks, and controlling fiscal fraud and capital movements; civil liberties and participative democracy, starting with the abolition of the Ley Sinde, which restricts internet freedom; protect freedom of information and investigative journalism; modifying the electoral law to put an end to political discrimination, including the representation of the null and blank votes; judicial independence, internal democracy in the political parties; reduction in military spending.

I cite these objectives to emphasise how concrete and reasonable they are, even though the immediate utopia of a different life is also present in many minds. But what is transformative is the process more than the product. It is the elaboration in open commissions and the decision taken in assembly. It is a new politics for exiting the crisis towards a new way of life built collectively. A slow process because, as a poster reads in Barcelona, “we’re going slowly because we’re going far”. So those who minimize the wikiacampadas still do not understand how profound they are. They may leave the squares, to return to them periodically, but they will not leave the social networks and the minds of those who participate. They are no longer alone and they have lost their fear. Because they discovered new forms of organization, participation and mobilization that burst the traditional channels belonging to those whom a large section of society, and the majority of young people, distrust. Parties and institutions will have to learn to live with this emerging civil society. If not, they will hollow out from the inside while citizens move from wikiacampadas to that networked democracy yet to be discovered in a collective practice that finds its root in every person.

Keeping the streets clean for ‘democracy’

Some notes, given the brutal punishment meted out by the Mossos d’Esquadra this morning in Plaza Catalunya. If the intention was to intimidate people from going out onto the streets, it seems to have failed. There are reports that gatherings are already intensifying in public squares across Spain. Esperanza Aguirre, the aristocrat right-wing president of the Madrid regional government, has requested to the Interior Minister that the police vacate Puerta del Sol. How they will manage this in light of intensifying public anger and the likelihood of thousands upon thousands of Madrid residents heading in the direction of Sol this evening, I have no idea.

I do not wish to say that these repressive actions have backfired, because we do not know yet what the long term reaction will be on the part of the population. Whilst the political class in Spain prides itself on the democracy it built after Franco’s death, a lot of the political class occupies the position it does on account of privileges acquired during the Francoist dictatorship, and a lot of the time ‘democracy’ is their alibi for the most flagrant abuses. When Baltasár Garzón decided in his capacity as a magistrate to investigate the crimes of the Franco regime (150,000 disappeared, corpses lying in mass graves and trenches), he was himself put in the dock for it.

When unions organised a protest in response, the Partido Popular (the foremost political heirs of the Franco regime) claimed it was an ‘assault on democracy‘. The current order was built atop the corpses of hundreds of thousands, and legitimised itself by effacing from memory the previous (albeit imperfect, see below) example of democracy in Spain. In so doing, the beneficiaries and apparatchiks of dictatorship transformed themselves overnight into ‘democrats’. For an example of this ‘democracy’ in action, see the example of the Iraq war, where opposition was in the high nineties percentage-wise against participating in the invasion, but Aznar went ahead with it nonetheless. For all Spain’s reputation nowadays as an open and liberal society, there is a deep authoritarian streak in the ruling class, and its response to genuine popular revolt could turn out to be brutal. Or not; we shall see. But my feeling is that they have prepared themselves for the long haul on this.

Today the Spanish state has decided to bare its teeth on behalf of the ruling class. It is all very well for these young people to be out protesting in favour of democracy whenever it has precisely no public impact, but whenever chambers of commerce and the tourism industry tell the ruling political parties that they’re making the place look untidy on account of their mere presence, the state authorities have no compunction in acting with gross brutality and impunity.

The language of ‘hygiene’ and ‘salubriousness’ employed this morning by state authorities in Barcelona has echoes of the moral panics in that city in the first decades of the twentieth century. There are also echoes in the way that Francoist forces described their vocation during and after the civil war. First, here is an extract from Los psiquiatras de Franco (Franco’s Psychiatrists) by Enrique González Duro. of Queipo de Llano’s repression in Seville.

To give order to and centralise the repression, on the 25th July 1936 Queipo named captain Manuel Díaz Criado as delegate for Public Order. As such, Díaz Criado sadly became famous for his extreme severity. “Criado didn’t go into the office until four in the afternoon, and rarely enough at that. In one hour, and sometimes less, he processed the files; signed the death sentences -around sixty daily- without listening to any testimony from the detained. To keep his conscience at bay, or for whatever reason, he was always drunk. He said that, once he had sat down, he didn’t care if he signed one hundred or three hundred death sentences, what was of interest was cleaning Spain of marxists. I heard him say, thirty years from now, there’ll be no-one left here”

Antonio Vallejo-Nágera, the foremost psychiatrist in the Francoist dictatorship, wrote the following of the ‘marxists’:

‘The marxist criminality started off with a group of infiltrators and agitators who through psychic contagion have dragged the multitude along with them. The secret social agitators have provoced an antisocial collective reaction influencing the environment for rousing the rabble in passion, awakening in every individual that criminoid aspect built into the human personality which only high ethical injunctions repress and restrain, as as occurred in the national (i.e. fascist) zone’

Writing of the republican moral panics in Barcelona in the 1930s, Chris Ealham writes, in Anarchism and The City

‘ keeping with the republican objective of splitting the working class, the moral panics can be viewed as part of a cultural struggle for hearts and minds in the barris. There were several strands to this ideological project. First, the exaggerated nature of the moral panics was essential in order to generate broad concern about phenomena such as street trade and crime, which in reality threatened the narrow interests of a small proportion of the population. Yet by stressing an undifferentiated civic interest and the essential unity and harmony of the social system, the moral panics projected a consensual view of society and appealed to an imagined political community. This explains why the moral panics were frequently couched in the language of disease borrowed from the discourse of nineteenth-century urban hygienists. By describing social enemies as a ‘plague’ and ‘infestation’ and the migrants as moral ‘pollution’ and ‘filth’ that ‘contaminated’ the city, the authorities hoped to find popular support for a ‘labour of hygiene’ to eliminate ‘scum’. Because this plague apparently threatened all citizens, regardless of social rank, it could not therefore be ignored and necessitated measures of social quarantine and a new surveillance of everyday life in order to ‘cleanse’ the city of germs and liberate it from the threats facing it.’

An onlooker, a M. N. Sarkozy of Paris, who popularised the use of the term ‘karchériser’ in relation to clean-up operations involving the removal of young men and women from the streets of his city, and who has since taken to expelling Roma, is reported to have observed, without a hint of irony, that the difference between the indignados in Spain and the people in North African countries in revolt is that the indignados live in a democratic country. Ruling classes across Europe are counting on the Spanish government to serve notice that dissent will not be tolerated. Just as their governments emitted weasel words over revolts against the Arab dictatorship, they will back their neoliberal counterparts in ensuring that order -which is to say, accumulation by dispossession- prevails.

Weekend World

It is nearly a week since the massive demonstrations in Spain first captured worldwide imagination, having been initially ignored, by Spanish media and world media alike, for several days. From the point of view of sympathetic onlookers, and no doubt some of the participants, the massive gathering in the Puerta del Sol in Madrid on the Friday night, in direct defiance of the ban laid down by the Central Electoral Commission against demonstrations in light of the forthcoming local and regional elections, was an indication that this movement had massive potential to open up a space in which the dominant order in Europe, and even worldwide, could be challenged. Whether people are in the thick of it at one of the demos, or watching the images flood in from wherever, it becomes hard to get a sense, when there is such an ebullient defiance of the forces  of order and expropriation, if the movement is likely to last. Because the movement was so widespread and intense in its manifestations, it was easy to get lulled into a sense that this was the way it was going to be for some time to come.

The election results, and, more prosaically, the end of the weekend, cooled things considerably. While there had been no declared intention on the part of the original motive force – Democracia Real Ya- that this was an initiative designed to influence the election – and indeed it had no impact anyway, the degree of attention conferred on it by media outlets was in part down to the fact that the political parties, who were under intense scrutiny precisely on account of the elections, had been caught on the hop. Once the results were known, the concerns, interests and intrigues of the parties of formal institutional political power came to the fore once again, and the movement, the camps and the protests were relegated to a secondary concern. The Partido Popular, as I noted the other day, obtained massive gains in the elections, with wins in key Socialist Party strongholds, even though it only garnered the vote of 24% of the population. The consequences, in terms of the attitude of power towards those taking part in the protests, were predictable enough. It was this, and not ‘lo de Sol‘ that was real democracy. Within the major sites of protest, such as Puerta del Sol in Madrid and Plaza Catalunya in Barcelona, there are concerted efforts on the part of the state to undermine the symbolic and practical role played by these sites in the staging of protests and ongoing resistance and organising.I saw this tweet from Barcelona this morning:

From Plaza Catalunya, it reads ‘They are evicting us with violence. This is totally illegal, the police are not carrying identification badges’. In the Puerta del Sol, where local traders are seeking the eviction of the protesters, assemblies are taking place through which a ‘consenso de mínimos’ is being worked out, that is, a minimum set of demands intended to give shape to the 15-M movement. These are likely to include a reform of the Electoral Law, anti-corruption measures, the separation of powers, and the creation of mechanisms that allow citizens greater power to hold politicians to account. While these seem rather modest demands, they still do pose a substantial challenge to political power in that they seek to address the marginalisation of the left, the domination of the judiciary by right-wing, often PP-supporting judges, and the impunity with which politicians undertake corrupt activities. From the point of view of the more radical members of the movement, it is likely to be considered a little tepid. I am not entirely convinced myself, but it is important to note that these will be points elaborated through an intense democratic process, and it will be in terms of the power of the challenge presented, not the length of the list, that the movement will exercise an effect. If there is intense resistance from political power, this in itself will widen the perceivable gulf between political and economic power and the majority of the population.

All this means that this weekend will be important, since it will allow people who have been working and/or studying all week to show their solidarity once again by amassing at these places and others throughout Spain and beyond. In Ireland the second demo has been organised for 2pm tomorrow at the Spire. It remains to be seen whether these protests in Ireland will, as in Greece and elsewhere, begin to directly address the common predicament of the two countries in light of the international character of the crisis. The gathering last week I think captured the imagination of quite a few activists round these parts. For the moment, however, the main aim of tomorrow’s protest ought to be to show solidarity and support with the movement in Spain since this is the central point upon which any local spin-offs that build on the movement is going to depend, for the next number of weeks at least.

It is not as if the two countries have nothing in common. As this translated piece by Vicenç Navarro from yesterday shows, the absence of the language of class struggle, the inability to perceive the role of the local bourgeoisie, or even name it, and its common interest with the institutions that are wreaking havoc on the local population, the tendency of governments to blame the policies they are adopting on the demands of the financial markets: all these things are as common, to both countries, as muck.

It isn’t the financial markets.

There is an understanding of the reality that surrounds us that is becoming widespread which assumes that states have lost their capacity to take decisions, since they have to act according to the dictates of the financial markets. This perception is accompanied by a narrative in which all categories of power such as class power or class struggle have been totally substituted by the “power of the markets that determines what happens in each State”, including the Spanish state. As a commentator wrote in one of the country’s biggest circulating papers, “capital is no longer personified in the bourgeoisie”. According to this posture, this bourgeoisie has been substituted by financial elites that are not the owners of anything except the capacity to produce paper that isn’t even money, but from which they derive mountains of money. And despite having caused the crisis they continue to receive public assistance from the State (paid by all of us through our taxes) that allows them to continue their speculative and unproductive practices that make the situation worse.

From them it is deduced that the bourgeoisie has lost its power too, making class analyses irrelevant. The social structure thereby gets turned into rich and poor, with the majority defined as middle class, new categories of social structure grouped within states, whose capacity to take decisions is determined by financial markets. It is important to emphasise that the governments themselves -to justify their highly unpopular public policies- call upon the same argument indicating that there is no other alternative than to follow the diktats of these markets.

This reading of reality, however, is mistaken, and it is easy to show why. First of all, the policies that the Spanish state is imposing on the population (flexibilisation of the labour market with greater ease provided to the business owner to sack workers, cuts in spending and public employment, cuts in wages, delay to the retirement age, and freezing of pensions, among other measures) are public interventions that the supposedly disappeared Spanish bourgeoisie has longed for for many years. In the light of these facts, to say that the bourgeoisie has disappeared or has no impact on the State strikes me as an error. As Lope de Vega might say ‘the dead were never so alive’. This bourgeoisie, both the financial and the industrial bourgeoisie, has some interests that diverge and some that coincide. And among the latter is that of using “the pressure of the financial markets” as an excuse to carry out what they have always desired. Naturally the Spanish bourgeoisie (and its components in the different peoples and nations of Spain) is helped by the bourgeoisie in member states of the European Union, whose political instruments control the institutions of the EU.

But external agents are not those who determine what happens in Spain. They condition and they facilitate, but they do not determine. The attention to what is going on outside dilutes the importance of the internal, which is the determinant. The Spanish ruling class (an absent term from the hegemonic narrative) is the one that influences the Spanish state. And part of its power has been to transmit the message that there is no alternative to the policies that are being carried out in response to external agents, the financial markets. And predictably, mass media outlets play a key role in the promotion of this message.

But it is not true that there are no alternatives. Here’s one example. The budget deficit could be reduced, instead of cutting public spending and employment, by raising taxes, an alternative that is not even contemplated by the main political parties or debated in the major media outlets. The parties to their left have proposed credible and practicable alternatives based on the calculations of treasury inspectors from the Treasury Ministry which have indicated that, reversing the tax breaks that have been implemented in the last 15 years (which have favoured the most powerful groups in the population) 35bn euro could have been obtained, without affecting the tax burden on the majority of the population, bringing in more money than what is being saved through social spending cuts, such as the freezing of pensions and or the cutting of public employment. What is more, if Spain had the same progressive fiscal policy as Sweden, the State (central, regional and municipal) would take in 200bn euro more than currently is the case. The fact that these alternatives do not enter the political debate corresponds to the systematic marginalisation and discrimination that mass media outlets exercise over these political forces. In reality, the low ideological diversity of the media in Spain is one of the major problems encountered by Spanish democracy. Another is the Electoral Law which marginalises the second party on the left (IU), thereby marginalising the left as a whole.

There is a class war in Spain in which the bourgeoisie -the ruling class in Spain- wins on a daily basis. The American financier Warren Buffett said: “This is class war, and my class, the rich, is winning”. Mr Botín (financial bourgeoisie) and Messrs Martín Villa and Amancio Ortega (industrial and services bourgeoisie) could say the same thing in Spain. All the Ibex firms (apart from three) have continued to turn profits, among with the biggest, but not the only ones, have been the banks. Meanwhile, the working class is paying for the crises that the former created. A symptom of the power of the ruling class is that no-one speaks, neither of classes, nor of class struggle, considering such categories as antiquated, in which one even arrives at the conclusion that the bourgeoisie has disappeared.

By Royal Appointment

Allow me to regale you with a link to a piece of mine most regal, appearing in this week’s commemorative edition of CrisisJam.

“that most perfect machine for producing obedience known as the State begins to break down like a fairground rifle whenever people say “enough””

This is a translation of a piece from Juan Carlos Monedero, who recently published a superb book titled The Transition as told to our parents, which I’m reading at the minute. The book is a great account of how and why Spanish democracy finds itself in its current state.

The piece was published the other day on his Público blog, Tras los mares del Sur. My head is a bit scrambled today so if there are any errors of typing, grammar or syntax, I apologise.

Notes on the “Commune” in Madrid (The Marseillaise in Puerta del Sol)

We knew it had to come, but we didn’t know when. All the indicators were saying so: there are too many people who have no reason to maintain political obedience. But the formula for predicting what will make the ice start to crack and where it will break did not exist nor does it exist.

Suddenly, almost unexpectedly, all the constellations came together and a section of the millions of those condemned by the neoliberal model decided that it would be worth the while to do something with their anger. The call for a gathering in the centre of Madrid, the traditional bridgehead for all demonstrations in the capital, held, moreover, two advantages from the outset, especially for a group of people who have more than simply lost faith with the political system: neither trade unions nor parties were making the call, but rather citizen groups that had been building up their outrage. In the atmosphere, furthermore, there was something like a need, intuitively understood, that one had to get out on the street or voicelessness would become chronic. And Madrid woke up and many people realised that they had built up a desire to give opinions, to participate, to be listened to. The Madrid Commune was underway.

The principal effect of the protests in the Puerta del Sol is the rupture of the routine that has allowed liberal democracy to glide along. If neo-liberalism has sustained itself based on the lie, about the impossibility of an alternative, as cheerled by Margaret Thatcher, the democratic model has held because it boiled down to a game for the upper echelons, effectively bipartite, televisual, ideologically decaffeinated, privately financed (or with privatised public money) and at a remove from a constantly diminishing militancy. This project ended up building a cartel with rules so severe that it excluded those who did not accept them.

Political power, economic power and media power, mixed together, became sturdy guardians of their own privilege. As happens with cartels, the discipline got applied with gradually greater authoritarian bias, in such a way that those who were not on the inside inhabited the outside as a matter of course. Disaffection has been the inevitable result of this contempt. When the disaffected populace allows things to be done, even democratic doctrine celebrates it (Everything works without the need to even vote!). But the sketchy legitimacy of the system weakens and that most perfect machine for producing obedience known as the State begins to break down like a fairground rifle whenever people say “enough”.

Zapatero, even though he was told right from the first moment of his mandate “don’t fail us” ended up failing. Remorsefully so, The gatherings for decent accomodation were repressed and “we want a little pad, like the one the prince has” was seared like a monarchical brand into the consciousness of those who had to keep living at home with their parents. Someone said that web surfers were “pirates like the terrorists” and despite the fact that the PP tried to step aside, it was clear that “Don’t Vote For Them” affected all those who aligned themselves with business. Out onto the street, in massive numbers, came demands for a democratic historical memory that will restore public dignity -they have always had it in private- to those 150,000 republicans buried in ditches and trenches for defending a democracy that deserved the name, and to whom the government responded with miserliness and the right wing responded with jokes and contempt. And for wanting to punish the guilty for the civil war, the magistrate who dared ended up in the dock. The university suffered in its august chambers the curse signalled by Boaventura de Sousa Santos: “every reform is carried out to cut away rights”, and to earn less than 1000 euro a month, which had previously been a stigma,  became the privilege of a caste of people whom fortune had struck. The Wikileaks cables made clear that outsiders are in control inside, the contracting party offering the contract knew very well that people had to accept whatever they were offered so they kept driving further down what was on offer. Torrente, the stupid arm of the law, was no longer a concept but a point of reference [Torrente is a fictional extreme right-wing racist police officer and title character in a series of Spanish films – HG] and television producers were convinced that people were dying to hear about Penelope Cruz’s pregnancy, the dung on Big Brother or the dresses worn at royal weddings. Where the devil, wonders Amador Fernández-Savater, did the people in Puerta del Sol get that capacity for self-organization? Because they don’t explain that stuff on television.

The elections of the 22nd of March have come along marked by tedium: a resigned Socialist Party which, after having their photo taken with businesspeople in the Moncloa [seat of Government – HG], have hardly managed to babble: “the PP is going to hit you harder than us”; a PP buoyed, despite its corruption, on the wave of polls, playing at saying as little as possible so as not to arouse suspicion; a United Left with difficulties in understanding why, if the language of the gatherings is so similar to its own, it has not benefited from that discontent; a right-wing nationalism still enjoying the passive benefits of having been out of power; and a left-wing nationalism that, in the case of Catalonia, still has not understood it has been cut loose, and which in the Basque Country has been lucky that institutions still anchored in the old regime did the campaigning for them. With this scenario, the idea that elections could solve the great problems of the country -which in the end comes down to peoples and cities- remained far out of focus.

The outrage in the Puerta del Sol is a point of bifurcation that is opening after many disappointments: the social cutbacks and the resigned acceptance by the government of the dictatorship of the markets; the five million unemployed (of whom one in two is a young person); the Sinde law and the cuts to internet downloading, which has affected the only certainty enjoyed by young people which is the freedom to surf the web; the growing threats to apply the same logic to Spain that is looming over Greece, Ireland or Portugal; the foretold electoral growth of the PP, despite the corruption and the arrogance of their corrupt members, the traumatic application of the Bolonia Plan; the hundreds of thousands of evictions; the imbalances in the electoral law; the renewed threats of sackings; the growing profits of businesses; the persistence of fiscal paradises; bank bailouts and the bloodsucking salaries of bankers and top executives. That’s without counting more abstract ones such as the usurpation of historical memory, the failure to carry out electoral promises or the suspected bias of the judiciary along with others more concrete such as police mistreatment of demonstrators and the prohibition of mass meetings by the courts (Where were they when two turncoats robbed the elections in Madrid in 2003? And don’t the courts have anything to say about people under criminal investigation appearing on electoral lists?). Let’s add, of course, the example of Sahara, Tunisia, of Tahrir Square in Egypt and before that insurgent Latin America: those peoples have risen up. What are we waiting for?

The people united at Sol do not seek an immediate transformation, through the electoral process, for our political system. A movement with these characteristics is born because it has already discounted the possibility of changing things electorally. One only need look at the demands of Democracia Real Ya, put together in recent days by an anonymous multitude, to understand that the debate is aimed at the future and at the heart of the system. If this were not the case, it would sink back into melancholy on the Monday morning of the 23rd May. Despite being overcome by nervousness and its memory of the 13-M (curiously, they do not remember, for instance, the victims of 11-M) [13-M refers to the text messages circulating and the eventual protests that materialised on the streets after it became clear that the Partido Popular had been lying about the authors of the attacks of the 11th March 2004 bombs at the Atocha railway station in Madrid, trying to convince the population that it had been ETA – HG], Sunday will not see any brakes put on the PP’s path to the Moncloa. It would be an error to think that what is happening is going to radically change, from night to day, the comfort of our democracies. But the point of inflection has taken place. No-one will be able to govern as if nothing had happened. Two years ago they said that capitalism was going to be humanised, and when the people left the street, they went off and inflicted structural adjustment plans on European citizens. If they fool you twice, it’s your fault. It remains a terrible metaphor that while the managing director of the IMF was allegedly trying to rape a maid, the people of Madrid came onto the streets to say “enough”.

The Democracia Real Ya! gatherings has given itself an assembly-based organisation, and it is through the assembly proposals are made to address their ledger of complaints. All these proposals aim at greater democracy and a greater popular participation, such as the radical demand for equality, which has been punctured by the sordid greed that the financial exit from the crisis is putting in place. An end to the privileges of politicians (several jobs, several salaries, conflicts of interest, lavish salaries, privileged retirement packages), an end to fiscal paradises and bank bailouts, banker bonuses, changes to the electoral law that put an end to the disproportionality and the bipartidism, and the democratization of communications media. The proposals that were abandoned by the syndicates about job sharing are being recovered, as is a demand not to raise retirement age, so that neither old people have to work so much nor do young people remain out of work. Since mortgage loans are impossible, they are demanding a public market with rents that allow them to leave the parental home, in the same way that they are demanding a change to the law that allows banks, whenever the mortgage can’t be paid, to repossess the flat, and on top of that keep demanding loan payments (something that, they also declare, a public banking system would solve). Among the proposals is also long term benefit for unemployment, and the need for those who have the most to pay the most, because if rich people are still not paying taxes, it is not possible to have redistributive public policies. None of this would be possible in the absence of truthful, free, and diverse news coverage (where the journalists themselves, who are also victims of their bosses -the big media owners- can also recover some dignity). In a clear manner, they know, and they demand, that without an independent judicial power that makes a reality of the separation of powers, justice will continue to be a joke in the hands of political powers welded to economic powers.

The main result of the Madrid Commune has been to break the primordial objective of elections: the authorization of political power to govern legitimately. That complacency of self-satisfied democracies has been broken under the improvised tents of the Puerta del Sol. After the 15-M, as they learned in Ecuador, Argentina or Iceland, winning an election is not going to automatically mean being authorized to keep doing the same thing. The movement of indignados has installed a peaceful virtual guillotine in the Puerta del Sol. This is how democracy is made virtuous. This does not bring us into misleading democratizing illusions. Many people who are passing through the square are witnessing a phenomenon that is already media-borne. Just as they could witness the Windsor wedding or the Pope’s funeral. But when they walk about down there, they realise that what is being sought at kilometre zero in Madrid has a lot more to do with their own lives.

Complaints always come from the place that one departs. This is why comparisons don’t quite work. When a young person says that banker bonuses are neither left- nor right-wing, (s)he is saying: ‘I am not politicised like you, but I have something very clear: in my idea of democracy, there are some things that should be beyond political dispute. And just as stamping out paedophilia should be beyond left or right, that some have so much and others so little is outside my understanding of democracy. The idea of equality is very strongly engrained among young people. They have not had to fight for it, but they understand perfectly when they are missing it. That is why no slogan that they read out is indifferent: “hands up, this is a robbery”; “Spongebob seeks a decent job”; “Your loot, my crisis”, “Violence is getting paid 600 Euro”, “We are not paying for this crisis”.And as if stepping onto this square were like taking the red pill in the Matrix, bringing about a change in their consciousness. They came for one thing, but they leave with their head spinning. A routine has been broken. And they say “I’m here because I don’t agree with what’s happening”.

The Paris Commune of 1871 recovered a democratic element demonised by representative democracy: the revoking of mandates, that enemy of the liberal “vote and don’t get involved in politics”. This is the message that the Puerta del Sol is recovering: if the system continues to be anti-us, Mr President, Madam Deputy, Madam Judge, Mr Banker or Madam Police Officer, it means, for the sake of survival, to think about another system. Of course the comparison is excessive. We are in the 21st Century. But there are elements of real democracy that bring us directly to that which brought the Communards to the barricades. The same thing that brought Spanish republicans to defend in the trenches the values of a Republic that fought off fascism for three years. Madrid resisted and then it was razed. Madrid is asserting itself again. Those nostalgic about themselves talk about May 68 – what they did not apply whenever they held the reins. But, luckily, the creaky “isms” do not count for the new Communards. There they demand, above all, freedom. In Puerta del Sol, the 15-M Movement demands equality and participation. And it does it peacefully. It reminds us that many things have to be reinvented.

Below the tents that kept the rain off us in the Puerta del Sol, an old man with a long coat and a battered harmonica started to play the Marseillaise. The full moon made old reflections. Little by little, people began to listen to him attentively. When the applause stopped, he made his way slowly to the corner where, from the floor, some young women had listened to him with smiles on their faces. He prepared the harmonica, striking it gently against the palm of his hand, cleared his throat and, in the midst of a great silence, he asked: “Let’s see if you know this one. It’s like the Marseillaise but from here”. And he started to play the Himno del Riego.*

*Anthem of the Spanish republic.


Video of José Luis Sampedro interspersed with footage of protests in Spain. Clicking on the cc button will give subtitles in English (thanks Karen)

Steps Forward

What follows below is a translation of a piece by prominent Spanish radical journalist Pascual Serrano. It is an astringent and perspicacious corrective to some of the more utopian commentary in circulation, and whilst it does not address the matter directly, it gives a good account as to why the term ‘Spanish revolution’ is altogether premature.

I noted yesterday that there was a danger of characterising the 15-M movement as apolitical just as media outlets had sought to do, for their own reasons, prior to the elections. But while it is true that the DRY! manifesto is radical in scope, Serrano’s analysis of the assemblies shows that there is a large amount of naivety within the movement, particularly with regard to how existing institutions of power function, and how there is a danger that forms of explicit political organization might be disregarded, limiting the possibility for the creation of an effective countervailing force. In a way this naivety is to be expected: the whole thrust of neo-liberal capitalism is toward depoliticization and atomisation. The danger is that depoliticizing impulses, and the repudiation of already organised and experienced organisations, end up frustrating, then reversing, the development of the movement. Guy Aitchison has a decent article on this at

15-M in Spain, the necessary step forward.

On Sunday 22nd May, those who mobilised across Spanish territory who demand a real democracy experienced -or are experiencing- the first dose of humility. While assemblies were underway, hands were being raised in interventions, original phrases were being written out on posters requesting that no representatives of any organisation should put in an appearance, those who were really organised were winning the elections and taking power. In reality they were not taking anything they didn’t already have. It is true that all of us knew that these gatherings were not going to affect in any important way the result of the election, but mindful of the fact that whilst we were mobilising, others were formalising the protocol of the change of government so that nothing changes, we ought to think how to move beyond what is being done. And as such it is important to get over the phase of enthusiasm and self-satisfaction to begin strategy and operations.

Looking at the documents and the proposals approved by the assemblies of indignados it is clear that, indeed, they are radical, however what needs to be defined is the minimum that is going to be demanded of power, and what means of pressure and during how much time people are prepared to struggle. If the nationalisation of the banking system appears among the approved items, but of whom this demand will be made is not specified, if willingness is shown to accept an intermediate measure by whatever means, it is obvious that no power is going to take that demand seriously. Other demands are already reflected in legislation, but listing them without being concrete about how what already exists can be guaranteed does not represent any advance. Some are contradictory – the right to a home is put forward but, following this, it is being requested that handing back your home when you are in arrears cancels the debt. So, it is assumed that families will end up out on the street.

The movement has had a honeymoon, with media and even in its relations with power. They acted with such surprise that they managed to catch the attention of the press, whilst the pre-electoral moment and an Interior minister who is a possible candidate for presidency of the government in the general elections of next year guaranteed the non-intervention of the forces of order. All the same, neither political nor economic power has felt in the least bit threatened -for now-, they have even allowed themselves to cynically say that they too shared in the feelings of those gathered and they were equally outraged, which confirms that the battle lines have not been clearly enough drawn.

When it comes to the set of ideas of the demonstrators as can be seen in interventions at assemblies and in the slogans of their placards and in their writings, it is true that there are robust expressions with concrete political positions, but there are also too many instances of apoliticism and de-ideologising which are more reminiscent of populism and fascism. Expressions such as we are neither left nor right or all politicians are the same does not help much to define the struggle. It is true that in economic policy there is hardly any difference between the PP and the PSOE, but the majority of the motions approved in the assemblies were, years and even decades ago, to be found in leftist political parties that do not receive nor have they received the support of these demonstrators. And we are not talking about electoral support -though it is also the case here-, nor in actions or mobilisations that these political groups, with their mistakes and their failings, have been trying to put in place for years. It would not make any sense to call for a change to the electoral law if at the same time one is saying that all politicians are the same. The president of the Valencian regional government Francisco Camps is not the same as the mayor of Marinaleda, Jose Manuel Sanchez Gordillo, or the Bildu candidates in Euskadi.

Elsewhere, if during the electoral campaign it was considered healthy that neither logos of parties nor organisations should appear at the gatherings, once the elections have passed, in my opinion, I don’t see any reason why there should be proscription of parties -mostly extraparliamentary ones- that have maintained in their programmes the proposals that the assembled are now demanding, or of ecologist, feminist, anti-fascist or alter-globalization organisations that have been mobilised for years. I myself, at least, do not feel comfortable in a gathering that says that all politicians are the same and that prohibit a republican flag, one with a hammer and sickle, or an anarchist one or one with an image of Che. The indignados do not want to impinge on the political panorama, they situate themselves as immaculate, they believe themselves to be above ideologies, they limit themselves to protesting and asking that their problems be resolved.  Who is going to resolve them? Who is going to develop the laws that guarantee the rights they are demanding? Who is going to rein in the banks? Who will tell them to give back the public money that was given to them? They will not expect that the deputies from the PSOE and the PP who make up the majority in Congress, less still if there is no confrontation with a right-wing that continues to profit from the misdeeds of the PSOE and whose corruption does not get punished at the polls.

In my opinion, those in power wager that, as days pass, the mobilisation will fall, it will peter out through not identifying concrete actions, the inert assemblies will get bored and conflicts will arise between those who are mobilised. The case of Argentina during 2001 should be a useful example. The entire  citizenry mobilised, outraged, coming together against the economic measures taken by their government, under the slogan of “Get them all out”, led to nothing. They were not able to create an operating organisation, to develop representative structures, they drowned in their anti-political discourse and their fear of parties and leaders. Finally, the talk of “Get them all out” wound up in nobody going. In another vein, with the days that pass, media attention toward the gatherings will most likely drop, the TV cameras will leave the squares, the front pages of the newspapers will forget about the mobilisations, and as such it is necessary to move forward with concrete proposals. In Tunisia and in Egypt people stayed mobilised because there was a well-defined short term demand: the resignation of the president of the country. In Spain, none of the demands can be approved by a parliament dominated by the PP and the PSOE, so another option will have to be sought.

The level of outrage that has gripped the streets of Spanish cities has meant a break with the degree of resignation that has reigned in Spanish society in recent years. It has shown that many of the traditional methods of mobilisation have become obsolete, that many organisations that believed themselves to be in the vanguard have no capacity for action. There is no doubt that there is a tremendous potential to a movement that has brought out onto the streets of the main Spanish cities a generation whose imagination traditional organisations have not managed to capture, organisations which are now obliged to join in with humility, but bringing its experience and elaborated alternatives. It has also awakened euphoria among many of us and a hope in the citizenry and young people which we will never forget, but we should not allow that intoxication to paralyze us for us to wake up only with a hangover and a frustration that everything remains the same.


Further stuff from the Democracia Real Ya! Facebook page.

In light of certain comments, it is necessary to make some clarifications.

  1. Democracia Real Ya! has never promoted abstention. From here we defend political participation, but each one of you is responsible for deciding freely and with conscience whether to exercise the right the vote and the sense in doing so.
  2. Although we do not campaign for abstention, it is necessary to remind the winning parties that a large proportion of the population still maintains its outrage and disaffection, and therefore they should not consider that they have a blank cheque to govern: the citizenry continues to demand changes.
  3. We do not accept the politics of fear based in the axiom that “the PP is coming”. If left wing parties have been unable to capture the imagination of and convince voters, that is their problem. Our duty is to denounce the abuses that all parties have perpetrated, whoever they are. Let them learn from the mistakes they have made.

Really Existing Democracy?

Following on from what I was saying about abstention in the previous post, I came across this graph on the DRY website.

So 36% either abstained, spoiled their vote, or left their paper blank.

I on Twitter

May 2011