Archive for May, 2011



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 Politico.ie

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.

Clarifications

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.

Moving On

Let’s have a look at the local and regional election results and what the likely consequences are for the 15-M movement.

Up until yesterday’s vote there was a widespread assumption that the movement was concentrating its efforts on influencing these elections, if not directly then indirectly. This was the assumption of the Central Electoral Board who sought to ban the protests and whose ban was overturned by tens of thousands going out onto the streets once again, and, given the fact that news media is very much orientated toward the election coverage and how this would affect voting, there was a perception engineered, in spite of the fact that even DRY’s official manifesto was an attack on the political class and the economic and political system they held together, that what was really at stake with these protests was an effort to get voters to vote in a certain way.In this we can see a tendency in media political discourse, which people in Ireland will also be familiar with, whereby any act of political expression must have an obvious association with electoral procedures, and what determines the truth of any given expression is not the application of reason and critical assessment, but the legitimation of that expression at the ballot box.

It is quite easy to see why this happened. First of all, media institutions are orientated toward a systematic coverage of elections, in which voting patterns and trends provide the basis for enquiry and discussion. It is all about which party is likely to take what seat where. In Spain, the main narrative, on account of the PP-PSOE institutional dyad, is always about how the fortunes of each party will be affected. Second, these institutions presume themselves to be natural and essential elements of Spanish democracy, which has as its primary document a constitution that institutionalizes capitalism much as the Francoist powers pre-Transition desired. Therefore it would be fanciful in the extreme to imagine that these institutions might suddenly treat with any seriousness the proposal, from DRY, even treating the protesters as some sort of devil’s advocate, that Spanish democracy is actually a fake. No: the odds are stacked too greatly towards centering coverage on one basic question: how will this affect the elections?

The tethering of the phenomenon of the protests and the camps to the elections yesterday led to DRY making an official press release, in which it denied that it was not a political party, that it never had any intention of being one, and that it had no intention of becoming one. It said that any links made with DRY and any political party were slurs, and that it was a non-party, non-union platform.

This non-party, non-union character points to another important question, which is DRY’s representation as an apolitical initiative, which is to say, that the ‘people like you’ that they declared themselves to be in their manifesto were presented in media outlets as the same classless ‘people like you’ who appear as the identified subject of advertising campaigns for breakfast cereals, toothpaste and parliamentary political parties.

For this manufactured subject, being apolitical or non-political is the foremost feature of existence. Therefore when news outlets made their way down into the crowds to report on the event, they reported on it as though they too were participating in it, as Guillermo Kaejane pointed out in his excellent account of the Sol camp, translated here. So there was a certain tendency to represent these people as just normal people who were as mad as hell and couldn’t take it any more but who didn’t have any substantial critique either of the economic or political system. Then, elsewhere, in more explicitly right-wing media, there was a tendency to claim that these people were not normal, decent apolitical subjects at all, but insurrectionist leftist malcontents, scroungers, layabouts, and so on.

People in Ireland will be familiar with the atmosphere on that redoubtable instrument of popular control Liveline in which being ‘political’ is not far from lighting your own farts on a crowded bus. Similar boundaries and prohibitions exist in Spain, even if declaring yourself a leftist or a socialist in Spain does not, these days, produce the same sort of frisson of discomfort that it often does in Ireland, even though it is only in the former where presumed leftists and antifascists were systematically exterminated, with 150-200,000 still lying buried in unmarked mass graves. This approved ‘apolitical’ disposition comes with a certain pedigree, the words “Haga usted como yo y no se meta en política” (In English, “Do like me and don’t get involved in politics”) were what Francisco Franco said to one of his ministers at the beginning of his regime.

It is the inheritors of his tradition, the Partido Popular, who have been the resounding winners of yesterday’s local and regional elections whilst the PSOE has been annihilated. The main method of the PSOE’s annihilation is the usual one: abstentionism. It lost a million and a half votes where the PP gained half a million. The causes are not especially surprising. The PSOE government under Zapatero enacted right-wing neo-liberal policies at the behest of the European Central Bank, the EU and assorted financial institutions and ratings agencies. This was in spite of the fact that it had promised people it would do no such thing. As a result it was easy for the Partido Popular to blame the PSOE for Spain’s appalling economic situation, even though any rational consideration would reveal that if it were in power, it would do precisely the same thing, only more viciously. The Partido Popular’s increased number of votes can be put down to the effectiveness with which it appealed to the apolitical ‘people like you’ of the toothpaste and cereals commercial. My wife received campaign literature in the post from them. It went straight to the bin, but only after noticing that the tagline on the envelope read ‘Centrados en ti’, i.e. ‘centred on you’, which is a fairly blatant way of making a claim to the politics of the centre.

Any such claim is fraudulent. The Partido Popular -which sits in the same parliamentary grouping as Fine Gael and Fidesz – contains some of the most reactionary xenophobes in Europe. In Catalonia, its candidates have been campaigning on an anti-immigration platform, with two candidates reported as having drawn a direct relation between immigrants and “diseases that had been eradicated in the city (Barcelona) since a long time ago and are now starting to reappear, brought in by immigrants”. Manichaean moral panics are nothing new in Barcelona, and the PP will seek to maintain this long-standing vile tradition, with more to come with regard to headscarves worn by Muslims. The Partido Popular’s Sarah Palin figure, former Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, serves as a valve for the crypt0-fascist effusions of its most reactionary wing. He heads up a think-tank called FAES, the name a thinly veiled reference to Falange Española. The name is also reminiscent of the falangist group of which he was a member as a student- Frente de Estudiantes Sindicalistas (FES). He is also an associate of former Fine Gael leader, Taoiseach and present Chairman of IFSC Ireland, John Bruton.

The PP has probably managed to garner some of its increased vote by focusing on Zapatero as the incarnation of the crisis. As this Público report notes, current leader Mariano Rajoy launched the following questions ‘like torpedoes’ at the last rallies of the campaign:

“Who froze pensions?” and the attendees shouted “Zapatero!” “Who cut public sector pay?” “Zapatero!” “Who landed us with 4.9 million unemployed?” “Zapatero!” Who raised VAT?” “Zapatero!” “Who got rid of the 400 euro rebate and the cheque-bebé? [A birth grant- HG] ” “Zapatero!”

It is this party, reinvigorated through its electoral victory yesterday, and eyeing victory in next year’s national elections, that has become the 15-M movement’s chief antagonist. After adopting the politics of austerity, the PSOE is now imploding. The PP will seek to portray its victory in yesterday’s elections as the real real democracy, and there will be a sharp move toward demonising the protesters outright as forces seeking to disrupt Spain’s recovery. But the movement has opened up a space, both conceptually and physically, in which the anti-democratic dynamic of neo-liberalism is laid bare. The world-wide demonstrations of solidarity on Saturday indicate it incarnates the most robust challenge to neo-liberalism seen in Europe to date. Its task, for the present, will be to hold firm as it starts to get ugly. If it manages to do that, that’s when it will start to get really interesting. The alternative is a descent into barbarism.

Updates

Just catching up on a bit of reading after spending the morning and afternoon in Dublin, of which more in another post in a little while. Today, you may be aware, was a day of ‘reflection’ in Spain in advance of tomorrow’s local and regional elections. This entailed the banning of protests. The principal effect, as far as I can see it, has been to strengthen the 15-M movement even more, by giving a practical example of how self-instantiating people power can push the bounds of the possible. I am in two minds over the name ‘Spanish revolution’ that is being applied to what is going on. I am fine with it in terms of the popular confidence it reflects and projects, but I am one of those people who believes there are still quite a lot of undiscovered valuable lessons to be learnt from the previous Spanish revolution. So I would nearly prefer it if this was a conscious reference to the previous one, and there were a bit more borrowing of names, battle slogans, and costumes. Like, for instance, this:

Which, according to this report here in Público has been appropriated and adapted to read “Madrid será la tumba del neoliberalismo. ¡No pasarán!” I do not think this is the sort of borrowing carried out, as Marx put it, ‘in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language’. On the contrary: if this slogan appears, it is out of recognition that the scene is not new at all. It strikes me more of an announcement that there is a lot of unfinished business to attend to.

However, a lot of the use of ‘Spanish revolution’ seems to be fuelled by the novelty of people actually getting out onto the streets to challenge the legitimacy of the reigning political and economic order. But there is a very long road to be walked difference between the point where you manage to reveal to large numbers of people that the systems that determine their lives are based on manipulation, lies and exploitation, and -what is more important- that it doesn’t have to be like this– and the point where you start the process of constructing a new order. I would make the modest suggestion that this doesn’t happen until the expropriators start getting expropriated.

Still, the achievement of mounting a direct challenge to the reigning order is not to be sniffed at. For me, this -bearing in mind it is taking place under the influence of the popular exertions in the Arab world- is the most exhilarating development I’ve ever witnessed. At a level of personal sensation, the only thing I can compare it to -and the two things are hardly commensurable at all- was back in the first months of when the first IRA ceasefire was called, and the roadblocks were removed from the roads in town, for the first time in your life you were able to pass through town as you needed to, and you could walk home from the pub at night without getting ready to jump into a hedge and run across the fields whenever you heard a car approaching because you’re worried you’ll be shot if it slows or pulls to a halt. That probably sounds a little strange.

I was down at the Dublin demo today. There was a good turnout, and it beat any other protest I’ve been to in Dublin hands down. Normally you go to one of these things and you hear four or five people from trade unions or political parties or NGOs get up and make a series of defiant declarations about this and that, and people looking up at them clap in agreement. Most of the time when I’m at one of these things I don’t pay too much attention to what’s being said. Sure you could figure out what they’re going to say before you walk out the door of the house. The main reason I go to these things is to make up the number. Whereas today there was a sort of open-megaphone session to begin with, where anyone was free to say whatever it was they wanted to say. It was hard to tell how planned or unplanned this was. But people were a bit reticent to say stuff, and some people who did say stuff said really goofy things, others said quite sincere things, the manifesto was read out, there were a load of slogans chanted, not all of them inspiring, some of them more so, and then I started to lose earshot of the megaphone and the child was getting hungry so we headed off. There were some great home-made posters there. I particularly liked the one that read ‘No bread for so many chorizo’, which must have had quite a few non-Spanish-speakers scratching their heads.

I suppose the thing that struck me most about the demo was the way it shed light on an aspect of the logo Democracia Real Ya! that had been pretty hidden to me previously. It is pretty easy to grasp the claim implicit in the phrase -that what there is is not real democracy at all, but a lie. But it’s one thing to point out the lie and say things like it doesn’t matter who you vote for in parliamentary elections because the broad mass of politicians are subservient to international financial institutions and the most important decisions affecting human life are taken by unaccountable, unelected bodies.  it’s another thing entirely to show what real democracy actually is. I mean, if you are going to talk about people power, hadn’t you better have some sort of notion as to the ways it ought to operate? Not in terms of grand theories, which are grand, or in long and drawn out pieces of writing, which of course have their place, but in terms of ordinary people speaking and interacting with each other in words and symbols out through which a properly democratic will can realise and remake itself?

So the thing that Democracia Real Ya! really brought home to me is that all the things I mentioned above: the goofiness, the hesitancy, the unwillingness to speak of quite a few (myself included) – these are all things that people taking part in any attempt at democracy (can we dispense with the real yet? Yes, let’s.) will likely have to start off with and work through. We (and I include myself) are so conditioned to thinking about democracy as merely the form of the sort of state in which we live. And because these states are based on the notion of representative democracy, in which you are supposed to delegate decisions to someone else, when the realisation dawns -as was being chanted at today’s demo- that they do not represent us, then you need to learn how to represent yourself to others. And since the dynamic in capitalist democratic states is towards depoliticisation, the chances are that you’re very bad at representing yourself to begin with. The problem, and the opportunity, as the slogan ‘Democracia Real Ya!’ indicates, is that you have to start getting better at it straight away.

But it can be done. See this piece and this report for further details.

Reflections on Reflection

Translation of piece by Luis García Montero from today’s Público.

Reflections on reflection.

Nowhere has there been so much meditation these last days as in the Puerta del Sol. Through it, the light of reflection has shone into the electoral campaign. Those addicted to the routine consumption of televisual pigfeed usually repeat the refrain that intellectuals are no longer committed and have lost their place in society. As fodder for cheap audiences, they are not used to receiving new ideas in the world of tele-garbage, be it gossip- or credit card-related. They are more into pigfeed than thought.

But there are other places that are not based on the shouty routine of mediocrity. The perplexed voter has read in recent years many books about the state of western democracy. Economists, philosophers, historians, political scientists, ecologists and writers have sounded the alarm about the winter for a word, democracy, which is being hollowed out. Under the political and media control of big finance, the true semantics of its vocabulary have been torn away from society. Democratic forms are drifting away from civil sovereignty.

Like the palace politician, the official politician, who moves amid the territory of pigfeed and viewing audiences, the perplexed voter also began to think that the perspective of intellectuals and of alternative movements was a lost endeavour.

But one day he went to the Puerta del Sol that had been taken by the people, he read the posters, listened to the proposals of the assemblies, spoke to the young people, and found himself in the street with all the meditations and preoccupations that he had once read about in books. In the name of the day of reflection, the Electoral Board orders the closure of the only spaces in which people truly wish to reflect. It is not a bad metaphor for understanding the state of our democracy. The magistrates are willing to cast to one side the constitutional right to hold meetings.

The perplexed voter recalls today that, at the beginning of the assemblies, he asked one of the organizers if it was possible to contribute to the resistance fund for the camp. They explained to him that they didn’t accept money, they needed blankets, paper, pens and books. He recalls another morning, when a young man with a Colombian accent approached him to tell him off about an article he had written about his country in Público. The perplexed voter had to admit, after a very intricate discussion, that he was wrong and the young man was right.

In the middle of the camp, other young people put out seats and a sofa with a notice that read “reserved for people older than 50 years of age”. A shiver of seniority ran through the bones of the perplexed voter. The young have their culture, their well-thumbed books, their blogs, their newspaper, their historical experience and their need to fight. The perplexed voter is proud of sitting on that sofa. Beyond the elections, there is a civic energy willing to restore democracy to dignity, which is to say, to refound the left.

‘Republic of Sol’

Rush translation of piece from Público today.

The Government of the Republic of Sol

Organization in the Sol camp is complex. There are no leaders, its structure is horizontal. There are ten commissions: food, infrastructure, respect and care, communication, outreach, activism, infirmary, internal co-ordination, legal, and sound. Some of these are divided into subcomissions with more specific tasks. Such is the case, for example, with activism, which is divided into graphic arts, neighbourhood activism and immigration.

Each commission meets in assembly several times a day, although there are always people on duty to attend to requirements that arise. In these assemblies any proposals that have arrived are debated, as are any that they have raised themselves. Their conclusions are reported in the general assembly. “You could say that it is the primary organ of government in the camp, this is where final consensus is reached, explains Marta, a spokesperson. The general assembly meets three times a day: in the morning, in the afternoon and in the early morning. The first announcements are to make known the conclusions of the commissions. After that, anyone can speak.

There are also two spaces: for children’s play and a library. As well as this, various debating groups have been formed about economics, culture and education, environment, feminism, politics..’it’s people who arrive and who really want to set up discussion groups about particular things. A lot of the time it is so that some people can express clearer and more consensual ideas in the assembly” says Marta.

The assembly reached numerous agreements yesterday. Among these, to set up in contiguous streets to the central Madrid square and even to set up tents for working groups and new assemblies. The attendees justified the measures due to the risk of the square overcrowding, since this prevents meetings from running smoothly. Thus, from now on, streets such as Tetuán, Carmen or Arenal would be occupied. In recent days these streets, including Preciados and Jacinto Benavente have been used for the stay of assembly members. It was also agreed that no images would be recorded in areas such as the creche, the infirmary, or the legal affairs or communications commissions.


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