This is a rush translation of a piece originally posted on Rebelión by Ángeles Diez, a sociologist teaching at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid and frequent contributor to the site. The piece addresses the role of the media, pundits, intellectuals and leftist groupings in defining and shaping the perception of the 15-M movement. I think it is a crucial piece for anyone who wishes to understand what is at stake in Spain, and how, or if, the movement might be applied elsewhere, and also, how it might be stalled elsewhere. I came across it initially at La pupila insomne.
There are a few quotes which are translations of translations – I haven’t got the time to look up the original passages. The original is also written largely in the present tense, which is a frequent device used to convey immediacy in the recounting of past events, but which doesn’t always work in English. I have picked and chosen when to use this, which is probably a barbarism. I have also translated ‘intrusismo‘ as ‘entryism’, however this word has a wider application in Spanish than its habitual use in English, which tends to refer narrowly to political movements. Still, if the cap fits…
Media, todólogos, augurs and prophets of the 15-M movement
Communications media have had a complex but not contradictory relation with regard to the 15-M movement. In general terms the initial reaction was silence, almost disdain: barely three outlets arrived at the press conference that gave information about the planned mobilisation for 15th of May. The mass occupation of public space on the part of the population and the broadcast of the mobilisations by foreign media dragged along Spanish media which were fearful of losing credibility. When reality could no longer be omitted it was better to air it in order to “manage it” better. The treatment and the image was, in the beginning, amiable: young kids – we all know how the youth are energetic and are always unconforming-, generic watchwords -the audience knows it lives in a democracy, imperfect, of course, but improvable – outrage– it is not a homegrown movement but one that has borrowed the book by Frenchman Stéphane Hessel, “indignaos” [In French, “Indignez-vous!” – HG]. The danger has to be conjured up right from the start.
As days passed, once credibility with the public at large had been won (the media is credible when it does not hide the news), the need arose to channel, filter, and orientate. In a democracy, if people can say what they want, they have to say what is correct, Bernays said.
The movement has developed a good strategy towards the media as it knows intuitively that the media will never aid revolutions. The media are not part of power, they are power embodied. Contemporary political systems could not sustain themselves without communications media, as Lippmann said in 1927. Therefore, the mass media does not set the agenda of the movement. “Who can tell us what happened in the Assembly? Can you pass us the accords? Who is the spokesperson?” The journalists get annoyed. There are no movement spokespersons (but there are for some organisations whose members are taking part in an individual capacity). Every person is free to respond and speak to the media but there is no movement spokesperson, no press releases, there are releases from the Communications Commission and the working groups, the minutes from the many assemblies are made public and posted on the internet. No-one simplifies the messages. The journalists are obliged to work. They install themselves in the assemblies, take notes, try to figure out what is being discussed. They try to force the participants so that they are provided with “resolutions”, “accords”, “announcements”. For the first time alternative media -part of the movement-, has the upper hand.
Non-violence is also a weapon against the logic of media that thirsts for spectacles which place the camera behind the police officer.
The movement has generated its own media, internet (webs, blogs, forums, social network), a radio in the camp, an audiovisual Commission that goes around recording Assemblies and interviews with the participants (always asking if they wish to be interviewed or not). The movement documents itself and speaks about itself, without intermediation. The movement struggles to have the word on all fronts. The struggle for democracy is also the struggle to have the word.
The movement establishes the field of battle and the rules of the game. And this is why the media seeks its production of news-commodity outside the movement. Panellists, professional opinion-givers are recruited. The todólogos [this is a popular Spanish neologism: ‘todo-‘ means everything, logo- means -logist. A ‘theorist of everything’ would be a stab at translating, but it doesn’t convey either the joke or the disdain of the original, which sounds a bit like ‘theologian’ in the original- HG] (sociologists, intellectuals and politicians) take on an important role: they declare themselves spokespeople. Interviews of this peripheral world seethe, touching expeditiously touch on the camps and the assemblies: Can you tell me if the movement will have an influence on the results of the elections? What does the movement want? Does it have a future? The media overflows with opinions seeking an appropriate simplification that can be adapted to the standard formula. In our democracies media simplification gets confused with public opinion.
The Spanish plazas have snatched from the media the monopoly over the construction of public opinion. This is terrorism. The media feels threatened. Power smells danger.
Ignore-reveal-simplify-orientate, this is the sequence followed by Spanish communications media.
The role of intellectuals and left organisations
Articles, opinions and suppositions about 15-M begin to circulate on the internet from certain “people on the left”. Critical positions on the movement, which spill over into alternative media. Of these intellectuals, few have participated actively in the assemblies, few have got involved bringing their knowledge and organisational skills to the movement, fewer still have located themselves on the plane of equality with the population to build with everyone and among everyone a project for a new country. But they speak, they give their opinions, and they make auguries of ill foreboding. They also appear irritated with the movement: it does not position itself as they believe it should. We intellectuals start off by explaining reality and end up telling reality how it ought to behave. We no longer know how to think without models, we lose the capacity for wonder and along with this the possibility of understanding the movement.
Left organizations also view with suspicion a movement that is difficult to instrumentalize. Some militants, professionals or otherwise, from the Spanish left, would have wanted to lead the movement. Their struggles, at times embedded in the political-institutional structure, have not managed in the past number of years to involve the population, nor to obtain sufficient support in order, “from within the institutional political order” to change things. Entryism -in a context of weakness- has not proved a good strategy. If people do not vote for left options that hold to the same positions as the people mobilised in the square, they think the movement is wrong, or they adopt a paternal position: this movement would be incapable of constructing alternatives and defending them.
We are terrified by democracy. And also of politics beyond that of institutions. For different motives, depending on whom.
It terrifies constituted powers because in a democratic process there runs a risk that the elites who govern us might be delegitimized, because what is in question is obedience to the norm, consent. The basis of legitimacy for contemporary (representative) governments is consent. We consent for them to govern in our name and as long as consent works the system is not at risk. To consent is to obey.
Many left organizations also fear democracy. They say, we are fragile. We are afraid to open a process of unprotected dialogue. We are afraid of losing our reference points (Marxist theory, the slogans that protect us, the affinity with our peers, the organization that sustains us). No-one is prepared to do what they consider a waste of time: to speak and listen to other people. Preaching, winning over, indoctrination: this is the gulf that separates the Spanish left organizations from ordinary people. The question is not if 15-M is revolutionary or not. The question is what can I do so that 15-M is revolutionary.
The Spanish left is disorganized, fragmented and atomized. One can understand its inability to conduct precarious and spontaneous rebellions into productive channels. Part of this left does not understand that in the Spanish context, amid the debacle of its political and economic system, the 15-M movement, by pulling on the handbrake -as Walter Benjamin said- can be revolutionary.
It has been a habitual practice of our lefts, and I suppose in those of other countries also, to attempt to instrumentalize mobilisations. The example of the mobilisations against joining NATO is paradigmatic – from this Izquierda Unida was born. Since then inclusion has been a synonym for swallowing.
Terry Eagleton said that the Augur is the person who seeks to predict the future so as to control it. Usually, he says, this role is played by economists and executives. Very often, without noticing, we play the same role from the left. However, Eagleton continues, the interest of the prophet in predicting what will happen is based on warning us that, unless we change our path, we will not have a future. The preoccupation of the prophet is “to denounce the injustice of the present, not to dream of a future perfection; but since injustice cannot be identified without recourse to a notion of justice, some form of future is already implicit in this denunciation”.
The movement still arouses sympathy, this is why the media and the augurs are working to reverse it and to make it fit in. Our role as committed citizens requires that we join in with the denunciation of injustice, not that we make auguries on the uncertain future of an emerging movement.