Sunday, June 19, 2011

Scenes From the Streets of Barcelona: Direct Democracy, Disenchantment and the Globalization of Resistance

Since the end of May of 2011, the streets and Plazas of Barcelona (along with those of Madrid and other cities in Spain) have been filled with young people (mostly) who, inspired by events in Tunisia and Egypt, believe that direct democratic action is also an effective tool of political life within conventional Western states organized as representative democracies. Using the tactics refined in the Middle East against Israel, and the former leadership of a variety of Muslim majority states in North Africa, these individuals hope to recast the institutionalization of government in the face of the progressive abstraction of the individual within the political machinery of Western states and the increasing remoteness of the state (through its reproduction at a variety of levels from the local to the supra national).

(From Larry Catá Backer, Sign at Street Demonstration, Barcelona, Spain, June 19, 2011).

Fusing a variety of streams of grass roots activism (some of which might be conceptually incompatible, but there is flexibility built into the chaos of change)--from conventional pre-1989 Western Marxism, to those who would finish the project of 1968, to modern anti-globalization activists, to pensioners without benefits and young people without jobs related to their courses of study who want state action against austerity measures, and anti-financial capitalist movement types, anti Euro movement organizations, and anti-IMF& World Bank types--these individuals have set up camps all over Spain and seek to pressure the state apparatus to resist taking actions to stem the consequences of the financial excesses of the present government in the context of long term economic hard times.  Known as Indignados, they would turn anger at the failures of the state to the excuse to refashion government and reconstitute power relationships within the state and beyond.
Josep Maria Antentas & Esther Vivas provide a glimpse into the thinking in a posting to First Food on May 21, 2011:
Rebellion of the indignant: Notes from Barcelona’s Tahrir Square,
by Josep Maria Antentas & Esther Vivas
There is no doubt about it. The wind that has electrified the Arab world in recent months, the spirit of the repeated protests in Greece or the student struggles in Britain and Italy, the mobilizations against Sarkozy in France... has come to the Spanish State.
These are not then days of “business as usual”. The comfortable routines of our “market democracy”" and its electoral and media rituals have been abruptly altered by the unforeseen emergence in the street and public space of citizen mobilization. This “rebellion of the indignant” worries the political elites who are always discomfited when the people take democracy seriously... and decide to start practicing it for themselves.
Two years ago, when the crisis which broke out in September 2008 took on historic proportions, the “masters of the world” experienced a brief moment of panic, alarmed by the magnitude of a crisis they had not anticipated, through their lack of theoretical instruments with which to understand it, and feared a strong social reaction. Then came the empty claims of a “refoundation of capitalism” and false mea culpas that little by little evaporated, once the financial system was underpinned and in the absence of a social explosion.
The social reaction has been slow in coming. Since the outbreak of the crisis, social resistance has been weak. There has been a very large gap between the discrediting of the current economic model and its translation into collective action. Several factors explain this, in particular, fear, resignation before the current situation, scepticism with regard to trade unions, the absence of political and social reference points, and the penetration among wage earners of individualistic and consumerist values.
The current outbreak did not, however, start from scratch. Years of work on a small scale of alternative networks and movements, initiatives and resistance of more limited impact had kept the flame of contestation alive in this difficult period. The general strike of September 29m 2010 also opened a first breach, although the subsequent demobilization by the leaderships of the CCOO and UGT and the signing of the social pact closed the path of trade union mobilisation and furthered if possible, the discredit and lack of prestige of the biggest unions among combative youth and those who have launched the camps initiative.

“Indignation” so much the fashion through the pamphlet by Hessel [the former French resistance fighter Stéphane Hessel], is one of the ideas that define the protests which have started. Here there reappears in another form, the "Ya Basta!" of the Zapatistas in their uprising of January 1, 1994, then the first revolt against the "new world order" proclaimed by George Bush senior after the first Gulf War, the disintegration of the USSR and the fall of the Berlin wall.
“Indignation is a start. One is outraged, rises up and then one sees” said Daniel Bensaïd. Gradually, however, we have passed from discomfort to outrage and from that to this mobilization. We have a true “mobilized indignation”. From the earthquake of crisis, the tsunami of social mobilization develops.
To fight more than unease and indignation is required, we must also believe in the usefulness of collective action, that it is possible to overcome and that all that has gone before is not lost. For years the social movements in the Spanish State have essentially known defeats. The lack of victories which show the usefulness of social mobilization and increase the expectations of the possible weighed like a heavy slab on the slow initial reaction to the crisis.
Precisely at this point the great contribution of the revolutions in the Arab world to the ongoing protests has registered. They show that collective action is useful, that “Yes we can”. That is why they, as well as the less covered victory against the bankers and the political class in Iceland, have been a reference point from the beginning for the protesters and activists.
Along with the belief that "this is possible”, that things can be changed, loss of fear, in a time of crisis and difficulties, is another key factor. “Without fear” is precisely one of the slogans most heard these days. Fear still grips a large majority of workers and popular sectors and leads to passivity or xenophobic and unsympathetic reactions. But the 15M mobilization and the camps expanding like an oil slick are a powerful antidote to fear that threatens to dismantle the schemes of a ruling elite at the forefront of an increasingly delegitimized system.
The 15M movement and the camps have an important generational component. Each time a new cycle of struggles breaks out, a new generation of activists emerges, and “youth” as such acquire visibility and prominence. While this generational and youth component is essential, and is also expressed in some of the organized movements that have been visible lately like "Youth without future", it must be noted that the ongoing protest is not a generational movement. It is a movement of criticism of the current economic model and attempts to make workers pay for the crisis which is fundamentally weighted towards youth. The challenge is precisely that, as on so many occasions, the youth protest acts as a triggering factor and catalyst for a broader cycle of social struggles.
The spirit of anti-globalization returns
The dynamism, the spontaneity and the thrust of the current protests are the strongest since the emergence of the anti-globalization movement more than a decade ago. Emerging internationally in November 1999 at the protests in Seattle during the WTO Summit (although its antecedents go back to the Zapatista Chiapas uprising in 1994), the anti-globalization wave quickly came to the Spanish state. The consultation for the abolition of the foreign debt in March 2000 (held the same day as the general elections and banned in several cities by the Electoral Board) and the big mobilization for the summit in Prague in September 2000 against the World Bank and the IMF were the first signs of this, particularly in Catalonia. But the mass movement really arrived with the demonstrations against the World Bank Summit in Barcelona on June 22 and 24, 2001. Just ten years later we are witnessing the birth of a movement whose energy, enthusiasm and collective strength has not been seen since then. It will not, therefore, be a nostalgic tenth anniversary. Quite the contrary. We are going to celebrate it with the birth of a new movement.
The assemblies now in Plaza Catalunya (and, indeed, all the camps around the state beginning with that at Sol in Madrid) have given us priceless moments. The 15M and the camps are authentic "foundational struggles" and clear signs that we are witnessing a change in cycle and that the wind of rebellion is blowing again. Finally. A true “Tahrir generation” emerges, as did before a "Seattle generation” or a “Genoa generation”.
Through the “anti-globalization” impulse across the planet, following the official summits in Washington, Prague, Quebec, Goteborg, Genoa and Barcelona, thousands of people identified with these protests and a wide range of groups from around the globe had the feeling of being part of a movement, of the same "people", the "people of Seattle" or "Genoa", sharing common objectives and feeling part of the same struggle.
The current movement is also inspired by the most recent and important international reference points of struggle and victory. It can be situated in the wake of movements as diverse as the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia and the victory in Iceland, placing their mobilization in a general struggle against global capitalism and the servile political elite. In the Spanish state, the 15 M demonstrations and now the camps, in a simultaneous example of decentralization and coordination, generate a shared identity and symbolic membership of a community.
The anti-globalization movement had ithe international institutions, WTO, World Bank and IMF and multinational companies in its line of fire. Later, with the start of the "global war on terror" proclaimed by Bush junior, criticism of war and imperialist domination acquired centrality. The current movement places as its axis the criticism of a political class, whose complicity and servitude to the economic powers has been more exposed than ever. "We are not goods in the hands of politicians and bankers" read one of the main slogans of 15M. There is criticism of the political class and professional politics and criticism, not always well articulated and consistent, of the current economic model and financial powers. "Capitalism? Game over".
Towards the future
The future of the 15M initiated movement is unpredictable. In the short term the first challenge is to continue to build on the existing camps, set them up in cities where they do not yet exist and ensure they continue at least until Sunday May 22. May 21, the day of reflection, and May 22, election day, will be decisive. In these two days building the camps at a mass level is essential.
It is necessary to also consider new dates for mobilization, in the wake of 15M, to maintain the rhythm. The main challenge is to maintain this simultaneous dynamic of expansion and radicalization of the protest which we have experienced in the last few days. And in the case of Catalonia, look for synergies between the radicalism and desire for a change in the system expressed in 15M and the camps, with struggles against public expenditure cuts, particularly in health and education. The camp in Plaza Catalunya has already become a meeting point, a powerful magnet, for all the more dynamic sectors in struggle. It has become a meeting point for resistance and struggle, for building bridges, facilitating dialogue, and propelling future demonstrations. Establishing alliances between the protests under way among unorganized activists, and the alternative trade unionism, the neighbourhood movement, neighbourhood groups and so on, is the great challenge of the next few days.
“The revolution starts here...” was the claim yesterday at Plaza Catalunya. Well, at least a new cycle of struggles is beginning. So there is no doubt already that, more than a decade after the rise of the anti-globalization movement and two years after the outbreak of the crisis, social protest has come back to stay.
Josep Maria Antentas is a member of the editorial board of the magazine Viento Sur, and a professor of sociology at the Autonomous University of Barcelona.
Esther Vivas is a member of the Centre for Studies on Social Movements (CEMS) at Universitat Pompeu Fabra. She is also a member of the editorial board of Viento Sur.
See also ¡La indignación toma las plazas!,  

But, of course, this isn't either diffused anger at a changing world, or merely the angst so typical of well feed Westerners. Anger has been focused on a set of decisions that are posed to threaten the life styles and expectations of Western Europeans in substantial ways.  In particular, the austerity programs that the institutions of the European Union and its instrumentalities have been developing, and particularly those that are meant to protect the Eurozone, that has energized the masses.  

There have been two recent violent interactions between the street demonstrators and the forces of the state,.  The first was a widely televised and largely failed effort by police to roust the demonstrators form their encampment in the Plaza Catalunya on May 27th.  See, Visión Siete: Represión contra "indignados" en Barcelona.The other occurred a few weeks later when, on June 15, 2011, the Indignants attempted to block the Catalan Parliament to prevent its members from meeting to vote on a controversial austerity measure.  
Protest near Catalan parliament, 14 Jun 11  
(From Barcelona: Angry crowd pursues Catalan MPs, BBC News Online, June 15, 2011; (caption reads: "The "indignados" movement has raised tensions as Catalan MPs consider budget cuts").
This last episode has also generated some substantial controversy, but one with a substantial ironic twist.  The Catalan government Interior Minister, Felipe Puig, referred to the tactics of the Indignants as a new method of urban terrorism veiled by a false passive resistance ("'Estamos antes nuevos métodos de guerilla urbana tras una falsa resistencia pacifica,' afirmó ayer el conseller de Interior, Felipe Puig, en referencia a los incidentes del miercóles durante la concentración de los 'indignados.'" Carla Mercador, "Puig Dice que tras los 'indignados' hay nuevos métodos de guerrilla," Que, Barcelona, 17 June 2011 at 4).  The government promised to find and punish individuals it deemed particularly responsible and individual legislators inconvenienced were vowing to take legal action personally against those responsible.  Id.  The irony, of course, stems from the tactics themselves.  The sort of non violence that pushes a state to either resist or collapse has been seen as a perfectly fine weapon when deployed against the Israeli state (in the form of naval incursions and mass border crossings, for example), or when used against governments of other states that some see as disposable, from the government of the People's Republic of China, to those of Ukraine, Egypt and Tunisia.  It quickly appears to change character from the vanguard actions of the masses to the criminal activity of irresponsible people when deployed against the states willing enough to support this elsewhere.  These states ought to expect that the tactics they have helped to sustain must, at some point,m be turned against them.  As uncomfortable as that might seem, they are merely reaping the rewards of their own efforts in a globalized world where ideas and tactics, like capital and economic activity, now move without the constraint of borders. 

All of these forces and ideas were nicely ion display on June 19, 2011, when hundreds of thousands of Catalans turned out for a demonstration in the central part of the city. The the press dutifully printed police underestimations of the size of the event (e.g., Qué reported 75,000 participants, Anna Cabeza, "El movimiento 15-M Sigue Vivo," Qué, June 20,, 2011 at 2).  However, it appeared fairly clear that the Barcelona demonstrations brought out several hundred thousand people--enough to topple governments in an election. The same was likely true for the demonstrations in Madrid.  While there were few incidents in Spain, the Paris demonstrations produced about 127 arrests for what were termed exceeding permitted limits of protest.  Id.

The demonstration was especially powerful as a nexus point for traditionally separate political, social and economic forces, all of which now find themselves threatened by the actions of a state apparatus that cannot seem either to lift the nation from its recession or present a coherent plan for responding to its present circumstances.  For Americans who might be tempted to look on this smugly as some sort of European problem brought on by non-market interventionist, the demonstrations serve as a reminder where a state puts ideology over pragmatism in dealing with the needs of its citizens, instability is sure to follow.  And Americans have begun a love affair with ideology and purity tests that augur badly for pragmatism and stability.
With that, some pictures of the fact of public discontent, all taken by me as the demonstration progressed; for all it would be most useful to read the signs:

In the end, what appears to be an emerging trend has manifested itself in Europe in a new form.  The individual has become increasingly abstracted within the machinery of ever more complex representative institutions.  The individual is reduced to a passive transaction cost of governance--they are required to vote, and only to vote, for personal representatives who, together with unelected administrators (within the state) and representatives of international organizations (without the state) together actually construct policy and wield power that affects the individuals as members of the particular class, group or aggregation targeted.  While the dynamic in authoritarian states is distinct from that in democratic ones, the functional result tends to converge, at least in the most general terms.  Individuals vote and conform; representatives legislate, enforce and judge. Against this, the individual in the West has found a useful weapon: non-conformity.  The weapon is useful because of its origins--as a means by which Western States and colonized groups were able to push democratic values to its edges in order to effect fundamental change where that was impossible.  It has become part of the mythology of progress in the United States (race), India (anti-colonialism) and other places.  But the weapon can also be used as a substitute for conventional warfare in asymmetrical wars.  The war waged by the Palestinians and their allies has been a brilliant testing ground for these new tactics. Israel-Palestine provides a space where the West will indulge actions oblivious to their potential utility generally.  And so just as the Israeli's developed targeted killing and other state privileging tactics now used elsewhere and by others, so Palestinians developed the tactics of using people (individuals) in place or armies.  That tended to even the effectiveness of fighting forces  (one can't fight against a civilian the way one fights against someone deemed to be in the military) in asymmetrical warfare and serve also to produce substantial political effects--states that failed to abide by the rules of asymmetrical warfare tended to have their governments open to effective de-legitimization campaigns.   It is one thing, for example to kill a fighter seeking to prevent the demolition of a house in occupied land, it is quite another to kill a civilian (especially one from a wealthy foreign state like the U.K.) who is effectively engaged int he same "work."  But these tactics proved generalizable--and useful in challenging the legitimacy of a state by its own people.  Starting slowly and tragically in Ukraine and China, the tactics, refined further in conflict zones, proved successful in North Africa in 2011.  Now they are being deployed in elsewhere and by individuals who seek to even the odds against overwhelming force. The Catalan minister was not wrong to suggest that the Indignants are waging war against the state.  They are. They are also seeking to de legitimate the state to the extent it seeks to deploy its power against them--effectively using law against the state apparatus to overcome the state apparatus itself.  But in the context of increasingly remote government, the unintended consequences of the development of tactics of asymmetrical warfare appears to have begun to have effects even within conventionally democratic states. Where, if anywhere, this will lead, however, remains to be seen.       


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