A Madrid October: The liminal reality of autonomous okupied social centres


… l’exclusion est une arme possible et nécessaire.  C’est la seule arme de tout groupe fondé sur la liberté complète des individus. … Cette discipline définit nettement une plate-forme incorruptible, dont l’abandon ne se rattrapera pas.  Autrement, il y aurait rapidement osmose entre cette plate-forme et le milieu culturel dominant, par la multiplicité des sorties et des rentrées.

L’Internationale Situationniste, Projet d’une anthologie de la revue I.S.

La guerre civile est le libre jeu des formes-de-vie, le principe de leur coexistence.

Tiqqun, Introduction à la guerre civile

The importance of autonomous okupied social centres (CSOA) for alternative, anti-capitalist politics is inestimable in Madrid.  The city today counts close to twenty such centres, most of which assume a radical political position in relation to state authorities.  Only but a few have sought compromises with the city government or property owners.  The self-perception is that of “being spaces in which … the utopia or the revolutionary society in which we wish to live is realised in a tangible way”. (Okupación: Más que 4 paredes, 4th ed., Distribuidora Peligrosidad Social, p. 12)  Which then implies the rejection of the CSOAs as merely alternative cultural or social centres, filling in the gaps in social services of increasingly impotent and dysfunctional welfare states, and often reproducing the types of social relations that the okupations were initially meant to challenge.

For those involved in the self-management of CSOAs, they are schools of autonomy.  They also serve as examples of forms of life at the margins/outside capitalism.  And they are a living refusal of State-Capital.

As points of passage, they are home to a multiplicity of social movements and collectives.  In Madrid, 15M inspired neighbourhood and thematic based working groups have come to depend on the existence of the city’s network of CSOAs.  Beyond it, other movements also use the spaces for gatherings, assemblies, organising, fund raising, and the like.  Other initiatives also proliferate: free shops and economies of barter, popular kitchens, urban gardens, legal aid, pre-school education, popular universities, all manner of workshops, etc.

The government of CSOAs is typically assembly based, open to all who wish to participate and engage with the collective self-management of the centre.  The ambition is autonomy from capitalism, but in fact, what autonomy is attained is a matter of degree.  There are those for whom this is a weakness in the politics of okupations, one that is indeed fatal to it, for it ignores, it is said, more significant domains of struggle.  This criticism however assumes that it is possible to hierarchically order political struggles by their importance, that some social relations are more definitive of capitalist domination than others (e.g. working class exploitation), and that therefore a distinction can be made between essential and non-essential lines of battle in the war against capitalism.  This assumption however is untenable.  Capitalism, from within, moulds in an ongoing manner every social relation that contributes to its constitution.  It further, today, is a total mode of government and production, with few or no forms of life to be found outside it, and from which it might be criticised and contested.  We are all in the belly of the monster.  And as it is everywhere, it can be challenged everywhere; including through okupations.

There is nevertheless not so much a criticism, but a question that arises in the politics of CSOAs.  As political projects, they reach out to those beyond the governing collective of the centres, to neighbourhoods, cities, and perhaps further.  Their self-managing assemblies are open, horizontal, and non-discriminatory.  And yet there are limits.

The importance of CSOAs is not the space appropriated, but the people who shape it and give it life.  Indeed, the space itself is precarious, subject as it is at any moment to eviction by the authorities.  It is those involved in it who give it meaning, a meaning that transcends the physical limits of the space; those for whom the space “should not be an end in itself, but a means for which to project the struggle”. (Okupación: Más que 4 paredes, p. 11)

As a collective, the okupying group constitutes a form of life, a way of being in the world, an ethics.  Its relation then to the outside, to other forms of life constructed through the many social relations of capitalism, is one of tension, perhaps even animosity and conflict.

The collective of the CSOA La Quimera in the Lavapiés neighbourhood of Madrid, for instance, is vegetarian-vegan, rejects the use of “hard” drugs and restricts the use of “soft” drugs in the centre, promotes environmentally and socially “friendly” consumption, and is of largely anarchist inspiration, to cite but a few of the features of its physiognomy.  To whom it reaches out, or to whom it appeals or seduces, is then immediately conditioned.  More significantly, in the use of the space, other collectives or groups must abide by the rules established by the La Quimera collective (members of other collectives can and do participate in the La Quimera collective).  And herein lays the possible source of tension.

In a long, passionate and difficult discussion among the La Quimera collective’s members, in a bi-weekly assembly, an issue was addressed, an issue that raises fundamental questions for any autonomous group.  The matter had to do with the use of the space by another collective for fund raising, through a party.  What then followed was that the festivities exceeded the hours stipulated for such events, accompanied by alcohol abuse by some of the revellers. Members of the collective were then confronted by the self-confessed distasteful task of clearing the Centre, and because of disapproval from some of the party goers, they were obliged to play the “heavy”, the “cop”.  The issue was taken very seriously, and rightfully so.  For what the discussion touched upon, and consciously, was sovereignty, in this instance, the sovereignty of the collective over the okupied space.

Arendt once wrote that “if men wish to be free, it is precisely sovereignty they must renounce”. (What is Freedom?)  And this because sovereignty subordinates those governed to the will of the sovereign.  Freedom however is to be found on the other side of sovereignty, beyond affirmations of the will, in free and equal collective self-creation, that is, in a free and equal form of life.  But any form of life may touch, rub against, other forms of life, not necessarily amenable to it.  And it may also share, exchange, with those other forms.  How may then the ethics of the group avoid dissipation in the other, without self-affirmation, the affirmation of its own sovereignty?  And is not self-sovereignty invariably defined and institutionalised in relation to or against the other (Carl Schmitt’s enemy)?

Criticisms have been made of 15M inspired assemblies: that they lack any useful purpose, and are pointless; that they are unwieldy and in effect are but forms of pseudo democracy; that in their larger manifestations, they have had at best a cathartic function for those who participate in them.  Those assemblies that then have survived have done so often by narrowing their concerns, taking on particular goals, or assuming certain forms of life as identities.  Where they have failed to do so, the assemblies, more often than not, have dissolved.  The issue is the same as that raised within La Quimera.  Does one define oneself politically (and how can this be avoided?) in such a way that sovereignty is embraced?  Or is a politics beyond sovereignty possible?

There are of course differences between the “sovereignty” of a neighbourhood or CSOA assembly and the sovereignty of a state.  But perhaps the difference is only one of scale, and not of nature.  In which case, the tension re-surfaces.

The La Quimera example is revealing, for the problem becomes acute only in the encounter of the La Quimera collective with another, and the use made by this other of the okupied space self-managed by the La Quimera collective.  One might say that the problem arises with the encounter with the stranger, for whom the La Quimera collective’s form of life appears in part as a body of rules for the use of the collective’s space, which the collective itself does not own (for it rejects private property), but uses.  From within La Quimera, the form of life that characterizes the collective is assumed by all of those who share and construct its autonomy.  It appears not as rules, but as the group’s very life.  The tension between a form of life as an ethics and an ethics which appears as morality to the stranger, the tension between belonging and living a form of life and not belonging, is I suggest unavoidable.  How this tension is lived then becomes crucial.  It may be ignored in strategies of naturalising or functionalising sovereignty (e.g. the nation state, identity politics, and the like), or it may be held to as the very place in which politics occurs and about which politics is.

The Situationists once described May 68 as an event that made Paris dance.  The dancer in every movement holds the body in a kind of mobile tension, never perfectly static, never exclusively in total movement.  The dancer lives between the two impossible extremes, dances in the tension between them.  Freedom is a politics of dancing.



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