Spain’s 15M: Doing revolution

The old revolutionary certainties have gone.

John Holloway, Crack Capitalism

What in our conduct, our action, makes it revolutionary?  Is it a simple matter to say of one activity that it is anti-capitalist, and of another that it is not?  We may wish to believe that it is.  But we would be deceiving ourselves, for we do not know, cannot know for certain, as we act, where the rebellion lies.  “Moreover, our evaluation of what breaks and what compliments capitalism is shifting all the time”. (John Holloway, Crack Capitalism, 74)  If the Bolsheviks could be perceived as a revolutionary force in 1917 russia, it was much more difficult to see the french communist party in the same light, in 1968.  The future consequences of our actions may betray our revolutionary intentions and capitalism displays a remarkable capacity to incorporate and/or absorb protest.  How then can we be sure of what is revolutionary?

Certainly there is a difference between a great popular uprising and [a] girl sitting in the park reading her book.  In the one case it is an open and public declaration of revolt, in the other it is a completely private, de-politicised moment of pleasure.  But if we limit our gaze to that which is public and open, then we are doing just that: limiting our own vision, and with it the impact of our dignities.  We are in fact reproducing the capitalist distinction between public and private, whereas our aim is to cut through that distinction.  Perhaps we do want the girl in the park to rise up and fight with others for a world in which we can all spend much more time in the park reading our books or doing whatever we want, but unless we can recognise and respect the present potential of that struggle in the girl’s reading of her book, we are in effect closing our eyes to the potential movement of the crack. (Crack Capitalism, 76)

The crack in this instance is a fissure, an opening, in the social relations of capitalism; an opening-doing on to other possible, non-capitalist relations.  To assume that we can know clearly and distinctly which cracks will undermine capitalism is to assume a cognitive superiority over others in the understanding of a predictable social development.  But the development of social relations, not to speak of revolution, is anything but predictable, and thus any claims to cognitive superiority are illusory.

There are, in other words, no hard lines between revolutionary and reformist/non-revolutionary acts, and thus no justification for clear divisions between militants and non-militants.  This is not to deny the value of activism.  It is however to point to the dangers of a militant world closed upon itself, thereby reproducing all of the ills of vanguardism.  “The world becomes divided into the world of those who fight for change on the one hand, and the great mass of people who must be convinced on the other”. (Crack Capitalism, 77)  The mass can then only be reached by teaching, explaining, talking.  “The central issue is consciousness and the lack of it”.  (Crack Capitalism, 77)  In contrast, one can look upon dissidence, revolt, along lines of continuity; lines which transgress the public-private divide.  Consciousness then gives way to concerns for sensitivity: “the ability to recognise insubordinations that are not obvious and the capacity to touch those insubordinations”.  (Crack Capitalism, 77)  Consciousness is not here ignored, but it cannot be a matter of bringing consciousness to others, from the outside, as it were.  The task is rather that “of drawing out that which is already present in undeveloped form, of bringing different experiences into resonance with each other;” something that in turn calls for listening, listening and talking in dialogue. (Crack Capitalism, 77)

It might be thought that any attempt to listen to, or touch the experience of, the tiny fissures (the girl reading her book in the park, say) means a loss of radicalness, a conversion of the revolution into something soft and wishy-washy.  This is not so.  The tiny, subterranean revolts may be far more radical in their potential that the nosiest demonstration. … The issue is not one of degrees of radicalness but of touching nerves, of channeling angers and dreams, of finding resonances.  (Crack Capitalism, 78)

A revolutionary politics engaged in a world of uncertainty and confusion, (and perhaps it was always the case), calls for actions, even organizations, that are “as open and receptive as possible”. (Crack Capitalism, 78)  Spain’s 15M lives in this awareness, and thus the absence of any specific organisational form or programmatic ideology.  It is not a political party, it is without leaders, it represents no one and all of this self-consciously, since its emergence on the 15th of May, 2011.  Throughout its short history, it has held to principles of assembly based decision making, inclusiveness, horizontality, respect and non-violence.    And in this same short history, it has continuously re-thought itself and re-made itself.  There is something of the radically self-reflexive in 15M that perhaps marks it as a unique.  For we are told that the self-reflexive cannot persist in time, that doing is required, a doing that demands organisation, institutionalisation.  And yet 15M continues, like a kind of social micro climate, seducing, diffusing, metamorphosising.

Recently, the Asamblea Popular de Madrid, which groups together the various neighbourhood assemblies of the city, produced a reflection on the “movement”, a kind of balance and perspectives of 15M, which is testimony to its nature and its intrinsic interest.

The text opens with the questions: What is 15M?  What has it accomplished?  What purpose did it and does it serve?  What is its future?  What paths should be followed?  The aim is to “develop, from a collective debate, the tools that favour the deepening of democracy and a new social development”.  No finality however is assumed in the conclusions that are presented, for the text is understood as “open, non-dogmatic, subject to posterior revisions”, product of a collective thought.

“15M is a horizontal and inclusive movement that does not accept the division of labour between leaders and executers of agreements, or between professional “thinkers” and loyal “grass roots” who accept pre-elaborated instructions.  Our way of being then leads us towards inclusivity in thought and action, and the refusal that one lead or think for others.”

If the movement can be said to find its origins in the neo-liberal economic crisis of 2008 and the dysfunctional features of spain’s formal representative democracy, it was by no means spontaneous, being the confluence and outgrowth of a multiplicity and plurality of social movements that emerged at the end of the 20th century (e.g. anti-war, anti-bologna, the Social Forum, the 11th of May protest against the Atocha bombings, the okupy movement, housing movements, ecological movements, and so on).

From the beginning however, and this independently, or perhaps because of, the movement’s heterogeneity, it developed from its inception its own identity, that of a movement that is anti-system and extra-system.

The reflection recognizes difficulties, especially as concerns the diminishing numbers of people involved in the diversity of activities promoted under the name of 15M.  Explanations for this refer to everything from impatience with the slowness or absence of clarity and effectiveness in bringing about change, the absence of a political or participatory consciousness among many of those who first were seduced by the movement, the dispersion of activities that render it difficult and tiring to follow everything, the increasing presence in assemblies of an older, more politically experienced population and the reduced presence of younger people, individualism, the fatigue with the slow processes of assemblies, the absence of any specific, concrete political program, the eclecticism of 15M, the fluidity and changing nature of the movement, the absence of visibility in the media, the growing fear of participating, resulting from the criminalisation of the movement by the State, the appearance of initiatives that happen outside of the ambit of the assemblies.  But if there are fewer participants, the quality of the actions undertaken is far greater, in the development of alternatives, horizontal management, without leadership, patience, reflection and learning.

It is recognised that for those within the movement, an enormous progress has been made in the understanding of the current economic, political and social realities that constrain and determine what is collectively possible.  If an even greater understanding is called for, an understanding rooted not in a knowledge domesticated by the frames of reference of power, but in the experiences of those who constitute the movement, this should not be had at the sacrifice of practice.  There “should not be any conflict between theory and practice.”

Politically, 15M emerged without links to any political party or labour union.  “From the beginning, it perceived problems globally, pointing to the nuclei of power (politicians, bankers, markets) identified as the origin of the “crisis”, their promoters and beneficiaries.”

“Nevertheless, the ways in which to confront the sociopolitical and economic situation are not clear.  Generic slogans such as “they don’t represent us” correctly center the political critique, for the representative system is not for the citizens but for those who hold economic and political power.  However, with this slogan, others appeared which were less clear, such as “reform the electoral law”, which in principle accepts the institutional system with partial reforms.  In reality, within 15M, since its origin, two political projects have coexisted: one of a global transformation of the system and the other of institutional reform of the same.”

Contradictions are therefore present and remain, which to a certain extent block further political clarification within the movement.

The movement has been capable of generating initiatives, especially if judged by quantity alone.  However, the majority are local and sectoral, and their organisation fluctuates and is diverse; a point of strength and weakness.  The manner of organisation has been very pro-active, but without much reflection or evaluation.  The depth of the actions is not great.  And the dispersion of activities engenders fatigue and exhaustion; activities themselves that are often partial or limited in scope.

Progress “should be made in the development of systems of mobilisation without falling into the creation of organisational super-structures that work for themselves rather than for society, but with a greater level of coordination and clear definition of objectives and methods for each action.  We lack spaces of convergence.  Equally, there is a lack of permanent commitment with this style of mobilisation and with the work necessary to sustain it.”

If the assemblies remain at the heart of the movement, greater agility and coordination between them is still required.  And if they are the movement’s identity, there is dilution, in the encounter with other social and political movements.

If 15M possesses any sort of identity, it is above all constructed around a set of principles: “indignation before the current situation, the necessity to contribute to a systematic change in the economic and political model and to the search for utopia, a peaceful intervention, but critical, transversal, inclusive, based on solidarity and which places the person at the centre, an internal organisation based on values, on voluntary, generous and ethically compromised work that generates collective learning along with self-learning, an alternative decision making procedure based on the assembly and accordingly horizontal and self-managed, that seeks consensus and the collective construction of knowledge and action.”        

As regards the future, the document calls for a deepening of the movement’s knowledge of social reality, at both a local and global levels, as well as an intensification in the diffusion of this knowledge through popular schools for adults, neighbourhood associations, and greater communication between assemblies.

If the movement lives a dichotomy between reformism and radical change of the system, for the moment, it is stated that both lines of action should be kept open as political objectives are clarified and deepened.

In the short term, “the violence of the neoliberal attack is so great, that it is inappropriate to abandon actions of direct response, of rejection and demand, even if such actions are essentially reactive and little proactive.  It is necessary to maintain the level of interventions with petitions for partial change, even if not systemic, to avoid even greater ills and the immediate suffering of citizens.  Moreover, in this way, we contribute to constructing citizen solidarities and critical political consciousness, both necessary to advance towards more profound changes.”

“In the long term, our orientation is to advocate changes in the general system, deep sociopolitical and economic changes, for which it is necessary to continue to work at the level of 15M, collectively, in the definition of:

“An alternative model of society, a utopia, that convinces us all.

“On this point, it would be important that our global political objectives re-conceive the foundations of capitalism, so as to substitute for it a model:

“Economically, of collective property and the communitarian self-management of the means of production, distribution and consumption, thereby eliminating the accumulation of wealth and speculation and thus assuring the universal necessities of people in a sustainable manner.

“Socially, that does not permit relations of domination between people or groups, that is non-hierarchical and that is based on the construction of emotional empathies, cooperation and self-determination.

“Politically, equally horizontal, based on relations between equals, with collective participation and direct decision taking (with neither representation nor delegation of power) and accordingly founded on organised assemblies.

“Oriented towards the development of knowledge, an autonomous, critical, scientific thought and culture, in harmony with the surrounding environment.

As regards general strategies of intervention, the text appeals for the need to develop a growing critical and alternative consciousness of society, one which aims to reveal the contradictions of our social reality and contribute to changing it.

As to the question of creating a political subject, a 15M identity, as it were, no consensus exists, with very clear opposition among some to the constitution of anything resembling a political party.

Suggestions are made for the improvement of organization, the planning and management of actions and interventions, and the diffusion of the movement’s activities through communication alternatives.

What is perhaps most striking throughout this reflection is the effort to navigate between a closed versus an open movement, which thus creates itself anew, permanently, with the aim of overcoming the violence of capitalism.  How this can be done, no one pretends to conclusively know.  The struggle therefore continues.    

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