Against Whataboutery

I may not get round to writing about the matter of Kincora Boys’ Home in Belfast and its treatment in the southern media in the depth I might like any time soon, but for the moment, allow me to vent about something: I am sick of the charge of ‘whataboutery’ being levelled –whether explicitly or implicitly- when it comes to discussion of outrages perpetrated by state forces in the North of Ireland.

Such charges of ‘whataboutery’ -whereby someone who points to a particular injustice or atrocity is accused of doing so in order to distract from or refuse to acknowledge their own misdeeds- are a form of moral blackmail. Nowadays, when both the press and prominent politicians make use of it, they generally do so not only as a blatant means of countering the political threat from Sinn Féin, but also as a covert means of exercising control over what questions can be asked, and what questions should be ignored, over which unaccountable sources of power deserve scrutiny, and which sources should remain unaccountable.

In recent weeks, there has been ample coverage in both the British press and the press in Northern Ireland concerning recent developments and revelations around Kincora Boys Home. When I say ‘ample’, I mean by comparison with what has been presented in the southern press.

A Nexis search for ‘Kincora’ and ‘Richard Kerr’ –the Kincora victim who recently appeared on Channel 4 news in the UK speaking about his experiences of being trafficked and sexually abused, and then intimidated by the RUC so that the Kincora case would not come to trial, reveals 19 articles in UK national newspapers, including the Mirror, the Daily Mail, the Guardian, the Daily Telegraph, and the Independent. The first such article is on February 18th.

A search of Irish publications shows 17 articles from the Belfast Telegraph, which has been following the story closely, and 3 from the Irish News. There is not one article from a news outlet south of the border. However, a check against news websites without using Nexis shows that the Independent website did carry a piece from the Belfast Telegraph, and that RTÉ’s website mentioned Kerr in relation to a call from Belfast East MP Naomi Long for Kincora’s inclusion in the UK abuse inquiry. There is also one report on the Irish Examiner. By contrast, for the same period (since February 18th), however, in the southern press, there are 136 articles mentioning Mairia Cahill, who was raped by a member of the IRA in Belfast.

On RTÉ radio the other day the parliamentary correspondent of the Irish Times ventured that it would be a strange press that did not go after someone like Eamon Lillis, who killed his wife with a brick and then made off with her money following a light prison sentence. He is right, I think.

But what would be even stranger is if you had a press in Ireland that occupied itself with honouring the royalty and military of another country –as is the case with the current concern including Britain in centenary commemorations- whilst ignoring altogether the role of members of that country’s establishment in perpetrating and facilitating not only heinous instances of child abuse, but death squads, and in Ireland.

Kincora and its housemaster William McGrath are not at all marginal elements of the history of the Northern conflict: they are vitally important to the question of the role of the British State in promoting loyalist paramilitary activity that prolonged the conflict and caused thousands of deaths.  The role of Ian Paisley and other unionist politicians of the era in relation to Kincora, Tara and William McGrath still remains largely open to question –I say open to question, nothing more- and the opportunity for such questioning, upon the event of Paisley’s death, passed with scarcely a remark. Indeed, there were hagiographical tributes made to Paisley by the same people who castigate Sinn Féin for IRA secrecy and cover-ups.

What I mean by explicit or implicit ‘whataboutery’ mainly consists of putting forward the idea that Sinn Féin are in no position to be calling for action on Kincora (or other instances of British State misdeeds) because of their own history. Hence there is no need to call for any action, or even look into the matter further, because to do so would mean collaborating with Sinn Féin’s political agenda, and, it is frequently implied, to actually take the side of child abusers and those who cover up child abuse by so doing.

Micheál Martin, for instance, used a Dáil debate to castigate what he described as the ‘craven hypocrisy’ of Sinn Féin for calling for an independent legal inquiry in the Kincora Boys’ Home, in light of British security force involvement. Leaving aside the fact that it ought to be the duty of any public representative to make such a call, Sinn Féin making such a call, or its alleged hypocrisy in so doing, does not diminish the responsibility of other parties and groups to make similar calls. But very few actually do, and others restrain themselves from saying anything out of a fear that they too will be tarred with the brush of terrorist or fellow traveller. That is, the very accusation of hypocrisy is used to foster a moral climate thick with hypocrisy.

What is most appalling, I guess, is the combination of the fawning over royalty and, simultaneously, the elevation of oneself to a moral high ground through suggestions that one is taking a stand against Nazism in embryo, whether it is Olivia O’Leary or Jonathan Irwin who suggest a vote for Sinn Féin would be like a vote for Auschwitz, or Brian Hayes who accuses Sinn Féin of Goebbels-style Big Lies (neither his own party’s fascist roots, nor the Irish Independent’s past support for Nazism appeared to weigh heavily on his mind when he wrote that article), all the while this whole milieu is indifferent to the near entirety of what victims –whether of child abuse or paramilitary or state-sponsored violence- have actually experienced, or to any possibility of finding effective mechanisms for addressing such matters. Indeed, their interest in such matters only appears to perk up when it is to their own advantage, or, what is the same thing, to the detriment of their enemies.

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Joan Burton’s Ireland: A Guide for The Perplexed

Writing in the Irish Times on Easter Monday, Tánaiste and leader of the Labour Party reflects on the Easter Rising and its outworkings. She believes that James Connolly would be proud of the role of the party he founded, though notes that the leaders of the Rising might be 'perplexed' to hear that the Labour Party is presently engaged in a campaign for marriage equality.

Personally I'm tired of imagining how James Connolly or James Larkin or anyone else might look upon present developments. But I am going to linger on this point for a moment anyway.

On countless occasions in recent years I have heard the idea expressed that Connolly and Larkin must be spinning in their graves at the deeds of the present day Labour Party. I'm tired of this. For one, it appears to suppose that Connolly and Larkin would not have had the sufficient intelligence to understand that institutions can change radically over time, and that just because an institution bears the same name does not mean that it remains the same thing.

What is more, even if these men are spinning in their graves, this has zero effect on the world of the living. “Don't mourn – organize!” is an injunction associated in popular memory with Joe Hill, another member of the Industrial Workers of the World, whose funeral Larkin attended. We can be certain that both Connolly and Larkin would identify far more with this than with the act of invoking the spirits of the dead without bothering to work out what it is that the living need to do.

But assuming that James Connolly were incapable of distinguishing between the Labour Party as he hoped it would be and how it actually turned out, why would he or others be perplexed at the campaign for marriage equality? Such a perplexity, I suggest, would not be the substance of the campaign itself but more on account of the fact that it is being undertaken in a context where it is largely uncontroversial and requires minimal conflict with the forces of capital.

Indeed, marriage equality is by and large seen as beneficial to capitalism. One only has to look at the list of firms supporting marriage equality in the US to realise this. Moreover, whilst the Labour Party has been supporting marriage equality -and it is of course right to do so- it has taken part in a right-wing government, campaigned to constitutionalise neoliberal economic policies, introduced schemes to undermine the principle of paid labour, and, whilst demonising campaigners against the same water charges that they themselves said they would oppose, has abandoned any pretence of international solidarity with working class populations in other European countries, clinging firmly to the righteousness of EU political and economic elites. I could go on, but I'm tired of this right now too.

What Connolly might find more perplexing, at least as far as the leader of the Labour Party is concerned, is her claim that 'if we consider the violent tumult of the 20th century, Ireland has stood as a beacon of stability'.

A commonsensical reading of this statement would treat it as utter garbage. How could a country be a 20th Century beacon of stability whilst including in its history, among other events: the Belfast 1910 strike; the 1913 Dublin Lockout; the UVF; the Curragh Mutiny; the Irish Volunteers, the gun-running and Bachelors Walk; the Great War (thousands of Irish killed); the Easter Rising, the War of Independence, the Limerick Soviet, the Civil War, the Northern pogroms, the Magazine Fort raid, the Belfast Blitz (the greatest loss of life in a night's raid outside of London), the Northern 'Troubles' that left thousands dead, with perhaps the longest urban guerrilla war of the century in Europe, and the campaign conducted by loyalist death squads, including the Dublin-Monaghan bombings?

But we are dealing here with a very particular conception of 'Ireland'. What Joan Burton means by 'Ireland' is the southern State known as the Republic of Ireland. Clearly she takes no account of events north of the border post-partition as pertaining to 'Ireland'. It's worth noting, however, that she does not always use this conception of 'Ireland': in a recent televised debate with Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams, Burton quoted James Connolly. Here is Connolly’s quote in full.

'Ireland without her people is nothing to me, and the man who is bubbling over with love and enthusiasm for ‘Ireland’, and can yet pass unmoved through our streets and witness all the wrong and the suffering, the shame and the degradation wrought upon the people of Ireland, aye, wrought by Irishmen upon Irishmen and women, without burning to end it, is, in my opinion, a fraud and a liar in his heart, no matter how he loves that combination of chemical elements which he is pleased to call ‘Ireland’.

In Burton's head-to-head with Adams, she used this quote to blame Adams for the fact that the Provisional IRA campaign in the North had killed people of Ireland. So a more expansive conception of 'Ireland' applies when expedient, such as when it comes to countering the political threat posed by Sinn Féin -witness the sudden concern for the education of children in the North these days, or the job prospects for residents of West Belfast- but not when writing about the Easter Rising for a southern readership.

However, in a certain sense, Burton is correct. Ireland -the State- is a beacon of stability for a certain type of person. For all its treatment as a sacred document on account of the democratic aspirations it expresses, the Proclamation is also the declaration of the foundation of a State. It treats 'the Republic' and 'the State' as one and the same. With its emphasis on sovereignty, it provides a template for the parliamentary absolutism that has shaped political life in the Irish State, whereby, as Juan Domingo Sánchez pointed out recently, the multitude delegates its political agency to a sovereign (which can be a people's assembly or a King) and is hence deprived of any political right. In this sense, the repressive apparatuses of the southern State have been immensely effective in securing stability, but for its ruling élites, those who say, in effect, l'État, c'est nous, and it has done so under the cover of democracy.

Burton claims that ‘we [who is this ‘we’, precisely?] retained democracy and rule by law since our foundation’.

As I've written elsewhere, such a view of Irish democracy omits certain inconvenient facts: an array of brutal carceral institutions -industrial schools, slave laundries and psychiatric hospitals; wide-ranging censorship; impunity for corruption and fraud by the rich; the longstanding privileges afforded to financiers and property speculators at the cost of the public welfare; the systematic evacuation of poorer sectors of society through the safety valve of emigration and their subsequent loss of the political franchise; the neglect and abuse of children; a constitution that guarantees the subjection of women and enforces drastic restrictions on their reproductive rights; meagre and judgmental welfare state and a public culture that prizes charity over solidarity; decisions made by unaccountable cliques.

But sure it was all done under ‘rule by law’, so that’s ok. Isn’t it?

Burton writes that the Rising commemorations should not 'serve the agenda of any sectional interest or political cause'. What this really means, of course, is that the commemorations should not serve any sectional interest other than those of Ireland's power elites and golden circles, or any political cause inimical to those interests.

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The Irish Times: A Beacon of Truth

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Here, son, all yours
Thanks, dad

The Irish Times carried a front page ad for the Beacon Hospital group (prop. D O’Brien) yesterday. It goes without saying that this kind of commercial transaction will have no bearing on the paper’s vigorous campaigning to convince its readership of the need for universal health care free at point of delivery.

It will have no bearing on its fearless investigation of the people who profit from the dilapidated state of the public health system.

It will have no bearing on its incisive analysis of the detrimental effects of privatisation on healthcare delivery.

It will have no bearing on the paper’s dogged battle to help its readership understand the relation between austerity policies and the erosion of social rights such as the right to health, and the relation between austerity policies and privatisation. A recent report by the European Parliament -an institution given great scrutiny by the paper- traced the effect of austerity policies in Ireland on various social rights, among them healthcare. It listed all the damage done as a consequence of healthcare cuts, and noted that Ireland has no right to healthcare enshrined in its constitution.

But since the Irish Times has been long in favour of protecting the services depended upon by the poor and weak, since it has long questioned the wisdom of austerity policies and refrained from presenting them as a self-evident necessity, there is no need to be concerned that advertising from the likes of the Beacon Hospital group will affect its editorial independence.

This kind of transaction will have no bearing on its doughty pursuit, in this regard, of Fine Gael Minister for Health Leo Varadkar, and his boss Enda Kenny, who have both made public appearances in recent times opening private healthcare facilities, or the question of what it means, in democratic terms, for government ministers to do such things.

Nor, of course, will it hold back in its questioning of the links between Fine Gael and Denis O’Brien, proprietor of the aforementioned Beacon Hospital group. Suffice to say, its thoroughgoing analysis of the revolving doors between politics and big business, as in the example of former Taoiseach Brian Cowen joining the board of Beacon Hospital, will be unaffected.

It will have no bearing on any of these things, because, as its former editor Geraldine Kennedy told the banking inquiry this week, the Irish Times is an ‘independent newspaper primarily concerned with serious issues for the benefit of the community throughout the whole of Ireland free from any form of personal or of party political, commercial, religious or other control’.

It will have no bearing on any of these things because, as Geraldine Kennedy also pointed out, it stands for ‘the progressive achievement of social justice between people’. And hence it will be unyielding in its highlighting of the dangers for social justice posed by the concentration of resources for the provision of public goods -such as healthcare, water, education and information essential to democratic public debate- in the hands of a few people, for the purposes of profit and power.

And, just as its property advertising concerns never prevented it from challenging the consensus view of policy and business elites that housing was a commodity just like any other, its sale of advertising to private health providers will have no effect on the broad readership of democratically-minded citizens who strongly support social justice and who recognise, by dint of the paper’s long history of emphasising this fact, that healthcare is a right worth fighting for, not a commodity to be bought and sold.

One would have to be a conspiracy theorist to think anything else.

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‘The enemy': Notes on the Germanwings crash

The media coverage of the Germanwings crash is shocking. I had 2FM on in the car on the school run and Tubridy addressed the issue of mental health.  Clearly the broader coverage -about the co-pilot’s supposed mental state and constructed history of mental health- poses difficulties for RTÉ’s usual light entertainment/lifestyle coverage, since it has been placing major emphasis, for some time now, on mental health and matters such as suicide and depression. Tubridy expressed concern that the coverage and debate might have the effect of giving people with mental health problems “a bad name”, but took pains to emphasise that what had happened in the case of Germanwings was a “freak” occurrence – he repeated the word “freak” twice. I went into the filling station and had a look at the newspaper headlines – the stand was a mix of “maniac”, “depression”, “jilted”, “murderer”. Apparently the co-pilot was referred to repeatedly as a “mass killer” on Morning Ireland.

There is a vast media apparatus dedicated to presenting destructive deeds in terms either of actes gratuits that originate in pure individual volition, or else the product of some kind of essential evil (the distinction isn’t always clear). But this apparatus steers well clear from offering any kind of explanation that the deeds in question might be socially generated. And, in the case of RTÉ’s coverage of mental illness, the idea that this might also be socially generated is always already hidden from view. This evening on its six o’clock bulletin, it reported that the co-pilot had hidden illness from his employers. We are unlikely to know, if this is indeed true, if there was anything about his employers that caused him to hide such an illness. At any rate, this now appears as something originating outside the aviation world, rather than the act of someone dedicating his life to flying aircraft, and as such very much part of that world.

I think there is a contrast to be drawn here between this sort of presentation on the one hand, and the kind of analysis that occurs within organisations, such as airlines, that recognises that the demands of working conditions are indeed a major factor in producing harmful outcomes. It is just that such organisations tend to recognise the outcomes as harmful not in terms of their immediate human effect, but ultimately in terms of their effect on the bottom line.

It would be inconceivable were the airline industry, for example, to not conduct studies on burnout and the likely effects of burnout if the demands made on the workforce are too great to bear. I imagine the same is also true of the haulage industry, whose workers are continually subjected to all manner of controls. But in the media coverage generally, and particularly in terms of content for popular discussion, all this is largely unthinkable and unsayable, and instead the effect is to stigmatise the victims of such systemic problems, characterising them, in this case, through the particular focus on the highlighted perpetrator as -in the words of an Irish Times opinion piece today-“the enemy within“.

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Things The Children Should Know

Average Citizen
The cartoon above is by Bernardo Vergara, regular cartoonist for eldiario.es, originally published on the 5th March.

Titled ‘Adventures and Misadventures of the Average Citizen’, it refers to the Spanish Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy, issuing a warning about the danger of ‘radical and xenophobic’ movements that have emerged during the crisis.

Rajoy is pictured declaring to the ‘average citizen': “And remember: if you want a radical and xenophobic movement as God intended, pick the one that already existed before the crisis”.

Depicted to the right of Rajoy are two ministers. The first is Alfonso Alonso, the Health Minister. He is holding a burning paper that reads ‘universal health care’. It is a reference to the withdrawal of access to health care for many migrants as a consequence of cutbacks.

Further right is Jorge Fernández Díaz. He is Spain’s Interior Minister. On his jacket reads the label ‘El Tarajal’. This is a reference to Spain’s border with Morocco in Ceuta, North Africa. On the 6th of February last year, 15 African migrants died as they tried to swim into Ceuta. As they attempted to make their way, members of Spain’s Civil Guard fired on them with rubber bullets and smoke bombs.

Further right are the dead for whom Fernández Díaz bears responsibility. Eldiario.es revealed on the 18th of March that Fernández Díaz held a meeting this Monday past, planned and in secret, with the members of the Civil Guard under investigation.

Some days ago, my son asked me about his grandfather who died of cancer. I didn’t know who he was talking about. After some probing, it emerged he didn’t really know what cancer was, and had confused it with a bomb. And it hadn’t been his grandfather, but his great-grandfather. He had overheard us talking about the Francoist assault on Malaga back in 1937 that killed his great-grandfather, who was a soldier in the Spanish Republican Army.

malaga

It’s hard to know where exactly to start when explaining these things to a 7-year-old. So I didn’t start. Had I started, I’d end up having to tell him about how the reason he goes to Murcia on his holidays to visit his granny is because his great-grandmother had to flee the city along the Málaga-Almería highway with tens of thousands of women and children, and how many of these along this route were slaughtered by pro-Franco forces.

And then where would I stop? I could hardly leave out the fact that in the country where he is growing up, the party currently ruling the country, Fine Gael, fervently supported the same forces that were massacring the women and children fleeing the town of his great-grandparents. I would probably have to go on and explain the role of the Italian Blackshirts in Málaga, and how fascism was much admired by many people in Ireland, including the paper of respectability, the Irish Times.

youngitaly

I would then have explain to him about how the people who killed his great-grandfather won the war, and imposed a dictatorship. I would then explain to him how neither they nor their political heirs were ever held to account for any of their crimes. Perhaps I would show him an image of a €200 coin, produced in 2015, celebrating ’70 years of peace’, 36 of which were under Franco’s dictatorship.

royalmint
Then I’d have to explain how Enda Kenny -one of the few politicians whose name he knows- is, like so many other people who run the country he is growing up in- an ally to the people who come from the same political tradition that killed his great-grandfather, the same tradition that sent his great-grandmother fleeing for her life, an experience that eventually plunged her into grave mental illness.

scathingattack

I would have to tell him that Enda Kenny takes the same side as these people when it comes to helping poor people in Greece, or elsewhere in Europe, including in Ireland and in Spain. I would have to tell him that Enda Kenny thinks you should not allow people to get hospital treatment or food or social services if they don’t pay off the debts that other people decided they have to pay.

Or what: am I supposed to lie to him and tell him that Enda Kenny is not part of a radical xenophobic movement, but instead a nice man who wants the best for everyone?

I really don’t think my son would understand why we have institutions that decide the luxuries of some people are more important than the basics of others. I don’t think he would understand why Irish people (like him) should seek the ruin of Spanish people (like him), or any other nationality. He wouldn’t understand why someone would want to fire rubber bullets at someone who just wanted to live a decent life. He wouldn’t understand why you would say to someone who was sick that they couldn’t get treated because they come from the wrong place, even though they already live in the place where they are sick.

Well, someday soon, I’m going to have to explain these things to him. I can’t say I’m looking forward to it. 

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The metamorphosis of Podemos

This is a translation of an article by Samuel Pulido, originally published in eldiario.es on 3rd March 2015.

The metamorphosis of Podemos

Podemos General Secretary Pablo Iglesias in the Puerta del Sol, Madrid, on the March for Change, 31st January 2015 (source: eldiario.es\Marta Jara)

Podemos General Secretary Pablo Iglesias in the Puerta del Sol, Madrid, on the March for Change, 31st January 2015 (source: eldiario.es, Marta Jara)

When the monster awoke one morning following a torrid dream of elections, it lay on its bed, transformed into one more party of rule. There it was with its hierarchies, its internal posts, and its phony rhetoric. It was now a party for cynics, destined to contain the democratic tide, rather than be washed over by it.

Such is the party-driven nightmare that many of us participating in Podemos have sought to highlight from the beginning, when we set our desire on electoral victory as the immediate political horizon. If Podemos must be a party in order to break the locks on the institutions, let it at least be a party different to all those it seeks to evict, both in the way it functions and in the things it proposes. The journey of representation means taking on baggage that may prove uncomfortable, but some of it can be an unnecessary burden that we would do well to avoid.

Obviously, we must keep in mind the limitations and the peculiarities of the sphere of political representation, as I wrote nearly a year ago. It is as illusory to pour scorn on the breaches that can be opened up from within the existing institutions, for which we have to adapt to the rules of a game that we ourselves have not defined, as it is to think that it is exclusively the Party or the State that brings about democratic change – least of all in one country, as Syriza is very well aware. Moving within the frame of what is possible, winning elections, which took Syriza a decade, does indeed require an electoral ‘war machine[i].

What is less clear, however, continuing this war metaphor, is whether this machine works better in the manner of national armies of old, or whether it should be understood based on the innovations and lessons that networked insurgencies have provided. What is even less clear is whether such a machine would then serve to develop good government (the “what for” that ought to complement the “winning”). To win seats in parliament requires a competitive logic; a good democratic government requires a logic of co-operation.

Since Podemos unveiled itself in January 2014 as a ‘method for participation open to the entire public’[ii], the initiative has evolved to the point that it has formalised as a political party. This constitutive process finalised on the 14th of February passed following the election of the different internal posts on a national level. However, with regards to the process of organisation, and in an electoral context where prospects are good, the debate frequently took the form of a war waged in personalised and binary terms, between fans and trolls. This internal rancour was fed in part by the establishment of a system of internal lists and voting that did not correct the existing inequalities in terms of access to media resources, but rather took advantage of these inequalities, albeit without acknowledging this openly. But it is not as simple as this.

The preoccupation with ‘internal democracy’, or to put it another way, with forms of internal-external interaction and communication that do not merely go in one direction, is not the product of the fear of winning or the inability to win, and it is not liberal scruples that take no account of the particulars of what we are building or of what is at stake in strategic terms. This preoccupation is legitimate because it emerges from what we have learned about the party-form after a long historical experience, not from self-serving theoretical abstractions. It is legitimate, moreover, because it is faithful to the ultimate objective that moves all of us who have set out on this adventure in good faith: contributing to a real democratic rupture. The way in which we organise ourselves and treat each other within the Podemos environment prefigures in many respects the way in which a Podemos government will be organised and how it will relate to the public.

In many ways, Podemos is currently more democratic than other parties, but it is also true that there has been a consolidation of a mode of operating in which the decisions tend to come from the centre so as to be rubber-stamped by what had initially been nodes that had a degree of meaningful autonomy. This tendency has not been consolidated completely, due to territorial diversity, due to the margin allowed by the gaps in internal regulations, and to the informality that still characterises a good deal of relations inside the party, as a consequence of its particular origin and its initial development.

What is true is that until summer of 2014, or perhaps until the citizen assembly in Vistalegre, Podemos was overflowing at every level, with different constitutive and militant elements (television spokespersons, Anticapitalist Left, circles, sympathetic activists etc.) interacting with a social ecosystem influenced in large part (but not completely) by television. As we know, the electoral success of the 25th of May placed the media focus definitively on Podemos, and, in the context of an accelerated political decomposition of the regime, Podemos began to occupy centre stage. It forced all the other parties to use its terms and its methods, albeit in a purely rhetorical manner. This being the case, the main preoccupation, in organisational terms, of the group that developed around the leadership of Pablo Iglesias, consisted of controlling this overflow, out of fear (reasonable in some cases, excessive in others) of entryism and the ‘appropriation’ of the brand -on a local level, for example- for different ends to those declared by the main leaders. The problem is that this intent on control, along with the way in which it has been practised, can end up mystifying the possibilities for empowerment and effective participation, thereby limiting the very effectiveness of the political strategy that has been set out.

One fear, already present since the beginnings of this project, is ‘if the project is presented in terms of representation, presupposing the homogeneity and the unity of the body it must head up, it will cancel out its own conditions of possibility[iii]. Well, this risk appears to be materialising before our eyes. A glance at the evolution over time of all surveys (see the interesting graphic below that is regularly updated on Wikipedia) shows how growth was vertiginous in the run-up to the European elections, less so but still very significant during the September-November process of constitution, only to stagnate since then, even following the successful mobilisation of the 31st of January.

15-day trendline showing average ratings from various surveys between November 2011 and mid-February 2015. Podemos in purple. Source: Wikipedia

15-day trendline showing average ratings from various surveys between November 2011 and mid-February 2015. Podemos in purple. Source: Wikipedia

Should things continue like this, even were Podemos to win the next general elections, it may not do so with the resounding victory needed to kick off a constituent dynamic driven from below. Even victory at the elections itself is open to question, despite decent surveys, given that the Spanish electoral system, when it comes to parties at State level, rewards parties that win over 25% and punishes those below this level. Podemos currently oscillates in and around this percentage, which is relative and a function of the degree of growth or collapse of other forces. Hence it is worrying to encounter the self-satisfied reading according to which the surveys ‘unanimously show an upward trend, at a vertiginous speed, and if we manage to maintain this ascent we will be in a position to govern, possibly with an absolute majority[iv]. As we can see for ourselves, this assessment is incorrect, as is also the insinuation that the rapid upward growth is exclusively down to a small team.

That is, from the citizen assembly onward we have witnessed a slowing of the growth of Podemos, though for the moment it is still benefiting from the deterioration of the PP, PSOE and IU. Another symptom is the diminishing participation in internal electoral processes, despite the rise in the number of people signed up (this may also indicate that those participating are the most recent arrivals, whereas many of those who took part initially are now abstaining). This slowing down coincides, moreover, with a decided withdrawal, as a consequence, on the one hand, of internal electoral processes, and, on the other, the growing subordination to the agenda of television stations that are currently sympathetic but whose fundamental task consists of normalising the phenomenon. Firms such as Atresmedia and Mediaset have their own interests, in accordance with which, for example, they frame the content of what must be the object of public debate. The current promotion of Ciudadanos in these media outlets also goes in the direction of preventing a broad majority for Podemos and filing off its rupturist edges.

Undoubtedly it is dizzying to think how far Podemos has gone in such a short period of time. Today the betting favours Podemos because it has positioned itself as the new winning horse, because it is the only option in the running that seeks a rupture with the regime of 78 and has possibilities of governing at State level and in various regional governments. And even were the least favourable results in the polls to become reality, they would still amount to an unprecedented historical event. It is logical to try and preserve positions that have been won and to avoid false steps now that a distorting microscope looms over Podemos and complicated decisions are on the way following the next regional elections. But to be satisfied with this is a dangerous invitation to lead the opposition. Once the novelty has worn off, might it not be the very fact that Podemos is finally recognisable and predictable, that is, less monstrous, what now makes it more vulnerable? Is it reasonable to tone down proposals for the electoral programme, or cast aside as marginal ideas that are feasible and at the same time innovative -constituent- as is the case with those that bring a transformative quality and those that would oblige other forces to make a move? Does respectability entail looking more like what you are criticising, or does it rather mean taking this criticism to its ultimate consequences?

These observations do not deny that the electoral fray is still wide open. They merely express cautiously that the political task that confronts us is enormous. It is for this reason that it is worth asking the new state-wide Citizen Council, whilst recognising the great deal of good it has achieved until now, that it conduct a serious reflection on the shortcomings of the present strategy and on what can be improved, not only with a view to winning the elections but also to anticipate the future actions of government in the European framework. In order for Podemos to gather together a broad social (and hence electoral) majority the party will need to avoid closing in on itself, and to seek formulas that lead to new overflows, new viral effects. This representative majority will not be achieved merely by attracting old voters or activists from the PP or the PSOE or IU, but also all the various abstentionists who when taken as a whole constitute the main ‘political force’ in the country. It will mean winning over but above all listening to and incorporating not only those who see themselves as middle class despite their precarious position but also the poorest of the popular classes, those with the least education, for whom abstention is structural. It would not be a bad thing to have more plebs and less party aristocracy. It is possible to involve people in the formulation of proposals for substantial change that they can treat as their own and not as measures desired exclusively behind their backs by an elite. After that the details of how it gets set up and its practical application will always be technical and the work of people with the necessary training; a great deal of work has already been done here, both in the university and in the movements. It is not enough, then, to denounce corruption on TV and avoid committing errors.

Podemos has not finished its metamorphosis. The tale can be different to what those who are satisfied by the current state of things are hoping for.

When the party awoke one morning following a torrid dream of elections, it lay on its bed, transformed into a monstruous tool for democracy….


[i] Link to remarks by party strategist Íñigo Errejón in October 2014. Errejón is now Political Secretary of Podemos

[ii] Link to initial Público report on Podemos launch, January 2014

[iii] Link to January 2014 article by Pablo Bustinduy, currently member of Podemos Citizen Council

[iv] Link to remarks by Luis Alegre, current Secretary General of Podemos in Madrid region, 10th February 2015, during campaign for Secretary General post.

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Syntagma, Syriza: between the square and the palace

This is a translation of an interview conducted by Amador Fernández-Savater with Stavros Stavrides, originally published 7th February 2015 on the Interferencias blog on eldiario.es.

Stavros Stavrides.Photo by Burkhard Lahrmann (via eldiario.es)

Stavros Stavrides.Photo by Burkhard Lahrmann (via eldiario.es)

Syntagma, Syriza: between the square and the palace (interview with Stavros Stavrides)

It has been told that the occupation of Syntagma square in Athens was an effect of 15M. Someone in the Puerta Del Sol put up a poster that read: “quiet, we’ll wake the Greeks”, and they in turn took to the streets. On the 25th May 2011 they occupied Syntagma and hundreds of squares throughout the whole country. 100,000 people surrounded the parliament, with a big sign in Spanish that read: “We are awake. What time is it? It’s time they were gone”.

This was not the social movements; rather, (as with 15M), it was society in movement. Stavros Stavrides, an Athens-based activist and lecturer in architecture was there. He lived the whole Syntagma experience and has spent a great deal of time thinking about it. For him, the occupation of the square was not merely a collective form of protest or demand, but rather “a way of laying claim to our own lives and putting forward a different way of composing social life”. A reinvention of democracy, public space and social relations based on the ideas-practices of equality, self-reliance, mutual aid, and non-delegation.

And now, three and a half years on, the victory of Syriza. How should thus be interpreted from the perspective of Syntagma? How might the relation be thought, today in Greece, perhaps tomorrow in Spain, between the movements from below and the governments that challenge neoliberalism? We spoke to Stavros Stavrides about this. His theoretical work focuses on urban movements and conflicts. And his book Towards a city of thresholds, in which he investigates, among other things, the experience of the occupation of Syntagma square, will be published in 2015 in Spain by Akal.

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1. (Amador Fernández-Savater) Right now, what is the reality and the vitality of the processes of self-organisation that hatched in 2011? Is the legacy of Syntagma square still alive, and how?

Stavros Stavrides. The legacy of Syntagma is a reality that is not always visible in the foreground of social and political life. It needs to be traced out into diverse initiatives that are very much merged with people’s everyday life, such as the collective kitchens in neighbourhoods, in municipal or autonomous medical centres that attend to those who have been excluded from social security, in the practices of exchanging goods and services without middlemen, in the movements against evictions along the lines of the PAH in Spain, in the cooperatives that keep cropping up, etc.

Syntagma has helped to create networks of mutual aid that sustain the lives of many people in Greece and at the same time generate new social relations, beyond individualism. There is a legacy, a living legacy of Syntagma, which has changed the mentality of society in many ways.

2. How did Syriza relate to the movements in Syntagma?

It’s important to say that Syriza was the only party of the official left that was not against Syntagma, as the KKE was explicitly. There was no single position within the party, but many Syriza activists contributed to the activities in Syntagma. Even certain parliamentarians (not all of them) made a symbolic approach to the square and said “we are with you and not with a parliament that has been taken hostage and removed from the will of the people”. Syriza was not against Syntagma, but rather the opposite, but it is not a result of these movements, as Podemos might be.

3. What do you mean?

Syriza existed before Syntagma. It is connected to a long tradition of the non-Soviet left in Greece. Its origin goes back to 1968, when the then illegal Communist Party split in two: the Eurocommunist part and the Stalinist part. Syriza is the evolution of the Eurocommunist part of the Communist Party and it more or less shares that tradition in terms of organisation, vision of the State, the relation between the party and the movements, etc.

4. But a few years back its electoral reach was insignificant, around 3 or 4%. What influence do you believe the movements of Syntagma have had in Syriza’s latest victory?

There is no determinist, cause-and-effect connection between the two moments, but I think -as many others do- that Syntagma created a new consciousness in society: it helped neutralise part of the fear that pervades everything right now in Greece, and to question the ‘necessity’ of austerity policies. The Syntagma movement was destroyed by force and repression, but the spirit of resistance and defying fatalism remained, and it spread beyond the square. Syriza would not have won the elections had that spirit not existed.

5. Though in Syntagma people were not thinking about the vote as the route to transformation…

Indeed. The spirit of Syntagma was based rather on the idea of people’s resistance and the rediscovery of democracy as direct democracy, as a complex co-ordination -and without any centre- of a plurality of collective initiatives. It was a movement against representative democracy.

But in the absence of the victory of the movement over austerity policies, Syriza appeared to the population at a certain point as the only option for change. As the only party that was not corrupt, that was not subordinate to the Troika, that could guarantee a democratic change and halt the measures that are destroying the life of society. The shift of ordinary people and the movement towards the vote was a shift brought about by conditions.

At any rate, Syriza does not replace the movements. And perhaps, with Syriza in government, there arises an environment in which the movements can develop more and better.

6. What capacity for affecting the policies of Syriza do these experiences of mobilisation retain?

We have to wait and see. No one can be very sure what is going to happen. Syriza has made very positive declarations with regard to certain demands from the movements in the areas of education, health, with regard to the minimum wage etc. There is an explicit willingness on Syriza’s part to satisfy these demands. They are measures that cannot be implemented in a matter of days, but Syriza also knows it will not enjoy a long period of tolerance and that it must act immediately to show it really believes in what it is saying. If not, there will be new social eruptions. But right now we are in that wait-and-see period.

7. In your article “After Syntagma”, you spoke about how, on the left and below, you had two ideas of democracy in Greece: an idea of participative democracy (represented by Syriza) and an idea of direct democracy (represented by Syntagma). How do you imagine there can be coexistence between the two?

Coexistence, no. Unfortunately, Syriza has evolved of late towards a party model that is more closed in around a small upper tier. It has verticalised and ‘presidentialised’ a great deal. This is a criticism made even within the party itself. I do not think Syriza can be a direct conveyor of the will of the citizens, a channel for people’s participation. It can, however, represent voters, by opting for policies that channel society’s demands.

Direct democracy plays out at another level, it redefines politics as an activity that is not specialist that cuts across all levels of daily life. It is a politics of the everyday.

I believe that right now we can intervene on the two levels: to push representative democracy beyond its limits, through forms of radical and direct democracy, but keeping in mind that representative democracy (with a party like Syriza in power) can open up zones of freedom and more favourable settings for the autonomous experiments that prefigure a different society. We can demand, on the one hand, measures against corruption or in favour of transparency in administration, and, on the other, challenge the limits of representative democracy, through conflicts and counter-examples, through forms of self-rule that go beyond public authority. Playing on both levels.

8. Is this the end of austerity, as people are saying everywhere? What can a government do faced with the neoliberal logics of contemporary capitalism?

We don’t need to rush to find a headline, let’s see. There can be serious and important changes of orientation in a moment of widespread questioning of the neoliberal context. The struggles from below can have an influence and so too the actions of a State. A truly progressive government can play an important role in inverting the correlation of forces within the EU. There are numerous levels for action, and they are not necessarily contradictory. I mean: renegotiating the debt is very important, but so too is rethinking and questioning the dominant models of development and growth. From above one can have an influence on neoliberal policies but to exist the neoliberal framework there will need to be changes that can only happen from below.

9. After three years of very strong social struggles in Spain, we have reached a series of limits. External ones, in that austerity policies continue as devastating as ever. And internal ones, a certain crisis of political imagination in the movements (how and where to go on). And right now the attention and desire appears to have shifted to storming the palace. Do you think that autonomous movements and processes of self-organisation have intrinsic limits?

I’m not in a position to offer clear answers. I am simply trying to think alongside you, and with comrades everywhere, about how we can overcome this situation.

I think that the limits we see are historical, not logical or ontological. We have not reached a kind of unsurpassable limit from which one has to do things according to the modes of traditional politics. I do not believe this. The State is a specific form, historically set in time, for organising social relations. It is not eternal, nor is it the only possible form of social organisation. We can go beyond the state model.

In this sense, the social creativity that unfolded in the Arab Spring, in the squares of 15M or Syntagma ought to be our only guide. That is why I judge the politics of above according to how much it opens up space to the processes from below. If these processes are subordinated to the politics of above, then there is no deep and true change possible. The marks left by the movements of the squares are barely sown seeds that need time to grow shoots and bear fruit. And we must take care of them and ensure their growth.

10. Different authors, such as Alain Badiou and the Invisible Committee, think that the only way of going beyond the pendulum swinging between neoliberalism and social democracy is reopening and rethinking the question of revolution, the problem of the radical transformation of society. What do you think?

I agree, but provided we rethink revolution beyond the religious imaginary of life after death, of the event that splits the history of humanity into a “before” and an “after”. Societies do not change in a kind of instantaneous volcanic eruption that consumes the past and creates the future. The time of change has different rhythms, different levels, and they are not always synchronised.

We need of course to hang on to the idea of rupture- changes are not fluid and smooth, but I’m suspicious of the idea of change as something extraordinary and led by extraordinary subjects. I believe more in the Zapatista maxim: the rebels are normal everyday people. Not heroes, not exceptional people, not ‘the chosen ones’, but common people who need to rebel in order to lead a dignified life.

If we rethink revolution in this way, from below, I think the revolution is already here and there are already examples being built that the desired society can exist. It is already possible: we know what solidarity and generosity can create. Revolution is not a total and immediate change, rather it is a series of experiments that go about producing changes. The sudden eruptions are no more important than what happens day-to-day under the radar of the media and what ultimately generates the decisive changes.

11. An Argentinian friend asked me if I believed that the underlying movement of what was happening from 2011 onward in Spain was the desire to go back to a “tranquil capitalism”, or if it was the search for new forms of living. What would you say, with regard to Greece?

I think that inventing new forms of living remains the desire of a minority, but the minority is not so small as it used to be. And it is no longer a question of ideology, but of experience. The groups in the neighbourhoods have not reinvented solidarity because they are communists or anarchists, but because it is the only way of living with dignity.

Of course, there is a desire on the part of many people to go back to living in the illusions of before (I say illusions because the “tranquil capitalism” was never a reality for the majority), but there is also a very powerful opportunity opening up for influencing the social imaginary. Because right now the individualistic forms of living simply cannot be sustained. The new forms of living are being built slowly, full of contradictions and devoid of any purity, but they are being built and they are influencing the consciousness of more and more people.

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