15M, appropriations and revolutions: Fragmentary visions in spain

Revolutionary change, the revolution, should begin from this moment on, beginning with the undoing of the authoritarian relations in each instant and place of daily life, breaking with the logic of obedience that power, every form of power, tries and will try to impose on us, resisting, practicing disobedience and giving the example of how we desire to live, for it is and will be these actions, including “the smallest actions of protest in which we participate”, that are those which convert themselves “into the roots of social change”.

Octavio Alberola, Revolución o colapso

On the 15th of May, a few thousand marched in Madrid to the Puerta del Sol to celebrate the 6th anniversary of the movement that would come to be known simply as 15M.  Smaller observances were held in other cities.

Almost a week latter, on the 20th, Podemos would rally over 10,000 in the same square, signaling an allegience to this recent past, but also demonstrating its divorce from it.

Tomás Ibáñez, the anarchist, writing of 15M in 2011, stated that the “worst that could have happened to 15M, and the future of social struggle, would have been for it to have allowed itself to be led by the libertarian movement … or that it have assumed as its own the principles and objectives of the the libertarian movement.” (Ibáñez, Anarquismos a contratiempo, 269)  The “worst” thing, he qualifies, excluding 15M ending up in the hands of some left-wing, extreme left-wing or nationalist political parties.  The rise of Podemos would seem to confirm the worst.

A Podemos political rally is an exercise in controlled demagogy.  The spectacle is staged, each moment generating ever greater emotional reaction and expectation.  The event begins with the expected political folk music, followed by the entry on stage of the nucleus of the Podemos parliamentarians: their age young, their appearance “cool”, they hold each other, smile and punch the air with their fists … “los compas” some in the crowd cry out, “the comrades”.  These are the ones who will lead the assembled to justice and freedom, they are the ones who will sweep away the corrupt, bring order to the State, enforce and pass laws in defence of the citizens, the people, the “fatherland” [“patria”: the word will be repeated without end]  At first, they could almost pass as a rock band, readying themselvs for a grand concert; but no, they are “our” warriors, our “justicieros” in whom faith must be had.  Then come the speeches, often written, seemingly rehearsed, each strictly timed to keep things moving quickly.  Thought and reflection are not expected.  The sequence of speakers itself alternates between parliamentarian and ordinary “citizen”/”worker”: unemployed, student, fisherman, longshoreman, and so on.  The refrain, to be read in the bodies and voices of the common man and woman: Podemos is the party of the people.  The order of the politicians is itself sequenced from the least well known to the leader.  All are presented as heros, indefatigable fighters for our dignity.  The cheering, the chants, follow rhythmically.  Nothing is left to chance, to spontaneity.  When the leader finally does step onto the stage, the crowd explodes in euphoria; it is Pablo Iglesias, white shirt, jeans, long hair held loosely in a pony tail, left hand raised in a fist, moving, pacing in a circle on the square stage like a boxer about to meet his opponents: the enemies of the patria, of the people and of their honest work, and of those who wish to work; the thieves, the crooks, the liars who sack and pillage the country.  Finally a man to fight for us, someone worthy of our trust.  And it is this that Iglesias asks for: faith in him, in his party, in his revolution.

The distance is great that separates the multiple and mass assemblies of 15M in Sol and the Podemos orchestrated show.  However politically limited and fragile the assemblies were, they were assemblies, largely open, horizontal, self-organised and self-managed.  And if they sometimes lost themselves in the self-confession of speakers, as individual after individual took the microphone, what was said was direct, pained or joyful, reflected or impulsive, to be then embraced or rejected by the very many who listened.  Those gathered before Podemos were not asked to listen but to react, in reflex, to words, names, slogans.  The speakers were chosen, pre-selected; those assemblied were the audience.  But so that the latter did not feel themselves entirely passive, they were greeted as the people, the speakers humbled themselves before them, thanked them for their presence, and recalled to everyone the history of their presence:  that as the assembled people, they were the direct descendants of the occupations of the squares of 15M and, even, of the country’s popular uprising against fascism in 1936.  And yet the truth strained, the lie was there for everyone to see.

Iglesias said to all of those present that they would be able to tell their children where they had been on the 20th of May, 2017, for the spirit of History was with them.  The motivation for the gathering was ostensibly to justify and gather support for the future introduction of a motion of no confidence in parliament by Podemos, to bring down the government of the Mariano Rajoy.  This would not be the action of a political party, but of the people, those assembled in Sol, and by extension, in the imaginary of the those gathered, the assembly of all of the people of spain.  The demonstration was thus both testimony of the synchrony of the party and the people, and justification of the party as the party of the spanish people.

The no confidence motion however will fail in parliament.  The party leadership knows this, for the majority of the political parties have denounced the exercise.  What game then is being played out?  In part, it would seem to be one further effort by Iglesias to undermine and fracture the Socialist Party (PSOE: Partido Socialista Obrero Español) that holds its leadership primary elections on the same weekend.  In other words, it is another act in the play in which Podemos seeks to situate itself hegemonically on the “Left”, to thus lay the basis for the conquest of political power.  The “historic” day in Sol then was but theatre, with the “people” as the extras for a game that will be decided elsewhere.  And when the show was over, those in the square could do little more than return home.  Indeed, to so gather the people, Podemos was obliged to rent some one hundred buses to freight people into Madrid from all over the country.  It is not that there is a distance between Podemos and 15M; there is an abyss. (El País 21/05/2017)

Carlos Taibo, in a recent chronicle on the occasion of the 6th anniversary of 15M, could still say, with justice, as he has said repeatedly in the past, “that the 15M that we have known until today has maintained a proud, and fortunate, engagement with self-organisation at the basis of society, in neighbourhoods and small towns, before the paraphernalia of endless entities remote from, and foreign to, what occurs in our daily life.”  For the same reason, 15M has visibly demonstrated itself to be distant from leaderships and personalised power. (Carlos Taibo, “Desde Abajo, Sin Separaciones: Seis Años del 15M”, madrid15m, Nº 58, May 2017)

Podemos is not 15M in political costume.  And if Podemos could not exist without 15M, 15M is not reducible to Podemos.  That Podemos has drained away activism from non-party political militancy is no doubt undeniable – for reasons which cannot be simply swept aside.  Podemos however is nothing more than “a return to reformist politics and this presages, undoubtedly, some social changes of greater or lesser importance.”  What has to be asked though is what is the nature and value of these changes.  That social-democratic reformism can bring about positive changes for ample sectors of the population – though never for the whole population, and more importantly, on a global scale, only ever for a minority – seems undeniable.  But at what price?  If the latter includes “the consolidation, revitalisation and perpetuation of the system that it reforms, then it is not certain that the price is not excessively high”.  And does not such a reformism also contribute to the domestication or deactivation of the multiple struggles that have marked the last years and upon which new political parties like Podemos support themselves?  The Podemos circuses, rather than being affirmations of authority, may prove themselves instead to be spectacles of a phantom life.  (Ibáñez, 279-81)

To consider 15M as Taibo does, that is, as at least in part an autonomous movement aspiring to generalised self-management,  renders any comparisons with Podemos and its capacity to mobilise on the streets, with the party shining brightly while 15M fades into historical oblivion, misplaced.  If 15M began with the mass occupation of city squares, and continued “visibly” in large public protests for another two years, the emphasis on self-management invites us to look elsewhere, at the proliferation and intensification of groups of direct action and collective mutual aid which have since 2011 emerged and/or developed outside the shining light of the spectacle of politics.

Perhaps the most radical legacy of 15M lies in the ways in which the expansion of self-managed forms of life have reshaped subjectivities, which in turn feed back into those forms.  ¨With 15M”, writes Carolina León, “like a slap of turmoil and spring with its precariousness, I knew that their existed a politics in each one of us, and that was an experience of transcending solitude.  … [T]he “revolution” has already triumphed, because it allowed a countless number of people to get out of themselves, to concern themselves with more than what belonged to them and pursue the discussion about living together.” (Carolina León, Trincheras permanentes, 11-2)  But to so speak of “revolution” does presuppose that it be re-conceptualised (the dogmatism on this issue by some anarchists is precisely the reason why Ibáñez thought that it was a good thing that 15M was free of anarchist organisations); a re-conceptualisation that is called for even if within anarchism, the idea of revolution as a single, insurrectionary event was always accompanied by a notion of social change that imagined revolution as emerging from expanding initiatives of self-management.

The question of revolution can be approached from any number of perspectives, but a reflection that appears in Carolina León’s essay Trincheras permanentes is valuable here.  Writing about the acampada of the Puerta del Sol in Madrid in 2011, she finds in the characterisation of the occupation and its multiple, daily assemblies as the realisation of politics, in the sense that Hannah Arendt gives to the term, an unsustainable contradiction.  If, for Arendt, politics depended on labour and work, it was not reducible to either or both of these.  Politics, as the public space of appearing and self-creation, rests upon the satisfaction of physical needs secured privately through labour and work, but does not share in the latter’s qualities.  The private sphere is a space of hierarchical authority, patriarchal authority in ancient greece, whereas the public space of politics is free and equal.  So different are the two, that the colonisation of politics by society (that is, the private management of life made public), that has become for Arendt the fundamental character of modern politics, translates into the death of politics.  What Arendt though assumes is that the private satisfaction of needs is a-political, or worse, anti-political, when it is in fact eminently political.  It is politically that the ways and means of needs satisfaction, and which needs are to be satisfied, are determined, all of which in turn shapes the space of politics.  Arendt in other words assumes the separation or divorce of politics from other spheres of life, when they are, on the contrary, overlapping and mutually sustaining.

León brings this forward in the expression of the “impure agora”.  “The squares rather than Chimeras, were very real.  They were not however delimited spaces separated from life, nor pure places of deliberation.  They were mixed spaces that reproduced themselves through the concrete and unavoidable labour of bodies.  Not of all, nor equally and without grabbing the same attention of other facets of the event.  The tasks that its maintenance demanded remained below, buried beneath the visibility of the debates, working groups and the assemblies of thousands of people.  And not everything was idyllic: in an experience of such intensity, tensions, bad stuff and criminal offenses such as sexual assault, also occurred.  The diversity was brutal because of its very openness.” (León, 160-1)  And if the acampadas were finally lifted, along with their specific politics, it was fundamentally because they could not be sustained, that is, physically reproduced.  In León’s terms, politics and care collided.  The question then becomes, for her, and I believe for any radical, anti-capitalist politics, how can the two be brought together, reconciled, so to speak (for they are in fact always together, with politics though parasitically feeding upon the many hidden activities or labours of social reproduction).

If “care” is understood as the discrete, daily and indispensable actions attending to the “needs of the body”, that provide what is essential for the perpetuation of life and if “politics” is any collective activity that produces a “common world” (in both cases, paraphrasing León, 156, 165), then the crossing of these two terms-activities-agencies is best captured in the notion of a form-of-life: of life lived and shaped collectively in and through itself in relations of affinity (it is friends who care for each other), and in affinity and/or tension with other forms-of-life.

In its most radical expression, 15M has entrusted to us a concept of life as politics and politics as life.

We have to abandon the idea that there is only politics there where there is a vision, a programme, a project and a perspective, where there is an end, decisions to be taken and prblems to be solved.  There is no true politics except where it arises from life and makes of it a determined, oriented reality.  And that is born from those who are close …

comité invisible, Maintenant

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