When do things start to fall apart? This last few years, the Republic of Ireland has felt like the land of the dogs that did not bark. Let’s recall Brian Lenihan’s remark that there would have been riots in France had the government there embarked on the series of measures that his government had inflicted on the people.
How could it be that an austerity programme of such unrelenting intensity, such blatant injustice, has been heaped on the population and met with so little resistance and so much apparent consent for so long? Does the Irish State enjoy some sort of elusive power borne of an essence no-one can name that instils obedience more effectively than other States? Where do we seek out this essence? In the State’s laws? Its police force? Its judges? The church? The media? The education system? Class relationships?
So much has been said about this that there seems to be little point in teasing out the finer details, at least here. What interests me are the prospects for democracy in Ireland the near future. Bondholders in Irish banks probably view democracy in Ireland as a resounding success.
The elections back in February, described as a democratic revolution by victorious politicians, were a way of consecrating the State’s commitment to robbing the people to line the pockets of the wealthy. As Paul Krugman notes in a recent blog post, the debts that the people are saddled with here were not even racked up in order to finance Irish investment, but overseas investment. Did the people vote for this at the last election? If you were to go with the flow generated by the Irish media and political establishment, then yes, indeed they did.
Well, the first budget is fast approaching, and the Fine Gael and Labour parties are about to demonstrate their fidelity to the commitments given to Dominique Strauss-Kahn before the last election, when they assured him, in his capacity as IMF head, that they would honour the conditions of the bailout.
Up until now the cutbacks could be laid at the door of Fianna Fáil on account of their corruption, links to construction magnates and bankers, and so on. Indeed, the days leading up to the budget will see renewed attacks on Fianna Fáil, as the ones that presented the current government with this legacy, as the grotesque figures who landed the country in a situation where, once again, sadly for all concerned, there is no alternative. Our hands are tied. We would love to magic money out of thin air, but we can’t. That is why we are revising our growth forecast downwards. We are in the business of government. Therefore we must cut your child benefit. Well, what is your solution? I don’t see why you’re protesting now – you did vote for us after all!
The moment is fast approaching when the faith of even the most unquestioning devotees of representative democracy will begin to crumble. The austerity lockdown, designed to bring about an even more unequal society, is going to mean lower wages, lower living standards and desperation for ever growing swathes of the population. That hitherto fully functional social routine, of going to vote once every four years, like going to Mass every Sunday or attending GAA matches, will appear to many as largely useless in retrospect. How on earth will people occupying positions of political power and those who identify with them –those who struggle against those who struggle- be able to say with a straight face that what needs to be done now is to shut up, put one’s shoulder to the wheel and wait another three years for another vote?
How, come this point, will this agency in power be able to call itself a government when it brazenly implements a series of measures it promised it never would, and goes as far as saying that it is out of their hands because Ireland has lost its economic sovereignty? Well then, if Ireland has lost its economic sovereignty, how can its government legitimately call itself a government? And if these TDs making ministerial decisions are not carrying out the will of the people, just whose will are they obeying?
As popular consciousness becomes increasingly saturated with images of protest everywhere else but here, it will take a lot of concerted effort to keep these questions under wraps. Are they up to it? Up until now, Enda Kenny has benefitted from uncritical media support in conducting the agenda of oligarchs and plutocrats, and moreover –if I might veer slightly in the direction of aqueous Irish Times columnists- a willingness on the part of many voters to restore the office of Taoiseach to that of the paternal figure of tradition whose relative power would address their own feelings of powerlessness. Come the budget, however, what fleetingly came across as a statesmanlike demeanour will start to appear more and more like the frantic footerings of a sad clown.
There is no communications clinic out there with the wherewithal to manage the forthcoming crisis for Irish political representatives. What bought time for so long, the hopeful robo-speak exemplified almost to the point of parody by failed presidential hopeful Sean Gallagher, will sound like the gargling of sawdust. Some appearances will no longer deceive. Political correspondents will appear as mere court scribes. Economists as priests spouting incantations. We are left with the question: what, if anything, can take the place of all this to cement consent? And if the answer is ‘nothing’, well..
I gave a talk at Occupy University last Wednesday. The initial plan was to give a talk looking at the writing emanating from what is now called the Occupy movement, in light of the explosion of provocative writing that the events of the last couple of months have produced. But when I sat down for a few hours to get some sort of handle on what people were writing about such an amorphous yet somehow multi-faceted series of events,I started to realise that any attempt at a digested account of what was going on would prove impossible.
So, bearing in mind that I was going to be speaking at Dame Street and not Davos, I started thinking instead about what had been going on with the Irish manifestations of the Occupy movement and the role played by writing.
I spent a lot of time down at the Dame Street site in the first week or so of the occupation, and then I spent five weeks at a remove, witnessing things unfold via an internet connection, mainly through other people’s writing, on social networks,blogs, and the occasional news website article.
It wasn’t simply a matter of observing things unfold, though: I was regularly interacting with people on all sorts of matters relating to the occupation, and often intervening in events, through writing on Facebook updates and chat windows and the like.
I wouldn’t call it a satisfying experience: I scanned through a fair few ‘Like’-fuelled conflagrations and unproductive conflicts that seemed generated from fatigue, anxiety and paranoia, and I read, aghast, accounts of events from people who were approaching things from a more detached perspective (detached, however, is not the same thing as disinterested) and reaching damning conclusions about the occupation’s character and prospects.
One thing that stuck in my craw, and indeed still does, is how even voices that might be otherwise sympathetic to what is being attempted, can ignore the practical, material difficulties involved in maintaining an occupation, and treat the utterances of the most vociferous individuals as though they were representative of the political motivations and consciousness of all those taking part.
This is a variant of what Mike Davis describes here as ‘the media’s constant tendency toward metonymy — the designation of the whole by a part, the group by an individual’. To compound this, the people most intensively involved in dealing with the practical considerations of the occupation seldom have the time or access to put their own views across. Another instance of this metonymy can be seen in Gene Kerrigan’s fine and sympathetic article in today’s Sunday Independent, where he reads the poster with the Kerouac quote and remarks about ‘sheeple’ as representative of the entirety of participants.The criticism is apt, but only for those to whom it really applies…
This kind of thing doesn’t matter too much when there are plenty of people making and distributing content that reflects the multiplicity of voices that you find at any occupation, and recognises a continuity between people’s reasons for occupying a public space and the wider social, political and economic conditions.
Unfortunately, this isn’t the case in Ireland.The compact and bijou Irish political blogipelago –in which I include not simply those who write posts, but those who make contributions via comment threads- tends to concern itself with electoral power struggles and the economic consequences of the austerity regime. I don’t expect people who are deeply interested in these things to drop everything and start writing the occupation, and indeed, for the most part, they haven’t.
There has been quite a bit of mainstream media coverage, but a lot of it has taken on a one-eyebrow-raised “oh look, they’re doing it here too” nature, indicating that for the moment, this is one protest that the establishment can feel comfortable about.
This is especially true when there isn’t a great deal going down for long periods on the #occupydamestreet Twitter hashtag, save mind-numbing ‘humour’ about occupiers’ hygiene habits from young men in ties who dream of Toastmasters and MBA courses. Left to their own devices, vacuums can speak for themselves quite eloquently too.
So I wanted to talk about what sort of effect writing has on a movement, and how these effects might develop via horizontal networks in the realm of mass self-communication. The title I proposed for my talk was ‘Writing in an age of networked occupation’. In alluding to The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction I was just being facetious rather than making any serious point, and I wasn’t planning on speaking about writing as art, but there were a couple of passages from that essay that I did find relevant for introducing the talk, in order to address the sort of technological neophilia that seems to pervade a lot of discussion of these things:
For centuries the situation in literature was such that a small number of writers faced many thousands of times that number of readers. Then, towards the end of the last century, there came a change. As the press grew in volume, making ever-increasing numbers of new political, religious, scientific, professional and local organs available to its readership, larger and larger sections of that readership (gradually at first) turned unto writers. It began with the daily newspapers opening their ‘correspondence columns’ to such people, and it has now reached a point where few Europeans involved in the labour process could fail, basically, to find some opportunity or other to publish an experience at work, a complaint, a piece of reporting or something similar. The distinction between writer and readership is thus in the process of losing its fundamental character.
Though written in 1936, there is a contemporary relevance there. And if it looks as if there is nothing new under the sun, maybe we should also be asking whether what has been done will be done again. Benjamin writes, in his epilogue:
The growing proletarianization of modern man and the increasing formation of masses are two aspects of the same process. Fascism attempts to organize the newly created proletarian masses without affecting the property structure which the masses strive to eliminate. Fascism sees its salvation in giving these masses not their right, but instead a chance to express themselves. The masses have a right to change property relations; Fascism seeks to give them an expression while preserving property.
My point here –apart from emphasising how serious the situation currently is- was to make it obvious that the use of social network technology will not, in and of itself, produce a decisive emancipatory social movement. The ‘post-democratic’ era currently dawning will see relentless promotion of self-expression, where opportunities will abound to comment on everything and anything, but always provided that any such self-expression does not interfere with property relations, or with processes of accumulation by dispossession. It’s equally possible, then, that the scene is being set for the type of networks that strengthen racist and fascist activities.
Politically, it’s important not to confuse the kind of self-expression Benjamin is talking about –which is permitted and encouraged because it perpetuates the order of things- with what Manuel Castells identifies as the use of mass self-communication in the formation of counter-power. The new spaces created by the digital age, then, should be seen as spaces to be contested, sites of political struggle.
And an important part of this struggle, which, I should stress, is only ever one element of broader struggles –since so many of the messages are communicated in text- is writing. But what sort of writing? I started with the example of a recent piece by Carol Rumens about Ireland’s new President of the Republic of Letters, Michael D. Higgins, in which she applied a phrase used by ‘the Northern Irish poets’ for rubbish poetry: ‘I first heard it from Longley himself, though I believe he said he got it from Frank Ormsby: mad-dog-shite’. The way she presents it, it’s as though the phrase (the usual expression is ‘mad dog’s shite’) were some sort of invention by aristocrats of poetic expression, instead of what it actually is: a phrase that’s part of a lexicon developed in common by generations of ordinary working people in the North, which belongs to no-one and everyone.
In a similar way, the type of writing I had in mind wasn’t sequences of words intended to enhance writerly reputations, but writing that was part of a common project to make a political language in common. I used the distinction offered by Roland Barthes between écrivain and écrivant as a way of understanding what type of writing I was on about.
Whereas Barthes saw the écrivain as the creator of a sort of consecrated merchandise, the writing of the écrivant had a transitive character: it was geared towards providing evidence, explaining and constructing, and took place at the margins of institutions. It was writing in the latter category that I thought was especially important with regard to the Occupy movement. But there was an additional distinction to be drawn: between writing that took place exterior to the movement, and writing that happened on the interior.
To be clear, I wasn’t talking about the difference between people writing in Navan and people writing in the yellow hut outside the Central Bank. Rather, I meant the difference between writing on the one hand that treated the Occupy movement as a sort of laboratory specimen, as if the writer were producing notes on an experiment that may or may not prove successful, and, on the other, writing that identified with the problems addressed by the movement: participative writing intended to resolve ambiguities, to shed light on difficulties, to elaborate on common ideas that had not yet been adequately expressed and shared.
It was this latter form of writing, I thought, –whether on blogs, Facebook walls and status updates, chat windows, or on posters or placards or leaflets for that matter- that actively sought to address, in however fragmentary and discontinuous a fashion, how the occupation of Dame Street related to the broader political and economic crisis, that would be most effective in developing networks of resistance to domination. It seemed to me a necessary component of the ‘real participatory democracy’ that Occupy Dame Street’s initial statement sought.
It’s impossible for anything more than an infinitesimally small percentage of the people that Occupy Dame Street are seeking to reach to participate in its assembly making decision process, or in whatever political discussions occur in the public space it is seeking to maintain.
Compelling video images may capture the imagination, but not everyone who might identify with the occupation had the time or the connection speed to be looking at video clips. People who commuted long distances to work and then had to maintain a household, for instance, might only get spare ten minutes or so for that sort of thing a day. The delivery and access to text-based messages presented a far greater range of possibilities.
One of the problems faced by Occupy Dame Street, I speculated, was in addressing a widespread expectation that the Occupy movement was some sort of McDonalds-style franchise that could be implemented in any modern urban setting. A lot of the criticism –sympathetic and otherwise- seemed to be based on this assumption, without due attention being paid to the specific circumstances that produced similar movements in other places. Here, for example, I think the exterior vs. interior modes of writing –and indeed, thinking- about the occupation are of some use.
A writing from the interior, that seeks to operate transitively, will seek to clarify what these circumstances are, and help to identify the obstacles to be overcome, whereas writingthat operates from the exterior will merely note there are differences, and perhaps adduce that this is why one can foreclose on the possibilities of anything interesting happening (and get back to tried and tested methods of failure instead).
I referred to a piece a few months’ back by Illan Rua Wall that I felt still held true for Ireland. In it, he explored why there had not been a popular mobilisation in Ireland by contrast with other PIGS countries, and concluded, rightly, I think, that in Ireland there still remained a hope for representational politics.
This remains true even while many people who retain this hope are being assailed with media predictions and speculation, intended to produce fear, about the cuts planned for the imminent budget. Indeed, in the discussions after my talk, it was clear that plenty of the participants at Dame Street still retain a hope for representational politics, even though the government is operating as little more than willing subcontractors for financial institutions and wealthy elites.
So much thought still seems to gravitate towards the question of how politicians might be persuaded, coaxed, cajoled into seeing the light about the situation and taking the right action in what Wall describes as ‘the stable and preconstituted zones of parliaments and negotiating rooms’. I felt Occupy Dame Street wasn’t operating in terms of a decisive refusal of representation, even though there were many participants in the street occupation who do adopt this position.
We talked for a while about how this refusal of representation –denying politicians any claim to represent you- also entailed representing yourself. In terms of writing, I mentioned the ‘We are the 99 percent’ blog as an example of how people who identified with the political claims of the Occupy Wall Street movement used their own words and images –and indeed, their own handwriting- to recount their own predicament and to relate this to the wider political and economic situation, instead of letting politicians or mass media outlets tell stories on their behalf.
Telling personal individual and collective stories, but as political statements, and by doing so via means of mass self-communication, laying bare the illegitimate character of dominant official narratives, thus helping build networks of resistance. There hadn’t been a great deal of this sort of writing generated in Ireland. I mentioned the forthcoming CrisisJam alternative State of The Nation address, The State We’re In, as an example of the kind of effect that was required: a multiplicity of voices – ‘personal testimony, community responses and any other kind of radical and questioning response’ operating through different creative forms.
The occupiers of Dame Street -or any other Irish location for that matter- won’t have the capacity to generate this sort of effect purely through their own writing activities. Perhaps all that they can expect of themselves, for the moment, is to maintain a presence and a space that allows these effects to germinate, and attempt, as best they can, to open their own regular lines of communication with people who may never make it to a weekday assembly, but who need and want to know what’s going on all the same, and whose contribution, through their own participative writing and reading and diffusion, will be to help weave stronger and wider networks of resistance through cyberspace and urban space.
One very big political problem is people knowing what they are talking about when they talk about the State. Think about when Charlie Haughey claimed, citing an Elizabethan dramatist putting the words in the mouth of a general in the Venetian state, that he had done the state some service, and how ‘doing the state some service’ has become a popular phrase among political correspondents and anoraks. And then, as I was saying in the previous post, the phrase ‘since the foundation of the State’, the portentous use of which in contemporary Ireland bears resemblance to the storytold humble origins of the corporation in a CEO’s homespun webcast, the week before he announces a massive jobs cull to investors.
Posing the question ‘what is the State?’ seems particularly apt in a week when stewards of the Union of Students in Ireland operated as police alongside An Garda Siochána, linking arms to block people, who had staged a protest outside Fine Gael headquarters, from joining the USI march, as shown in this footage.
These people were calling for free education for everyone. It says a lot about the authoritarian currents running through the Union of Students in Ireland (which, one should add, has been the breeding ground for no small amount of establishment control freaks down the years) that free education -which is not exactly a martian concept, given that it operated for many years in the state north of Dundalk- is perceived as a radical threat. Indeed, it shows a certain symbiosis between faith in representative democracy and authoritarian contempt for democratic expression.
After all, what are these marches but a reverential ritual for a voting fetish? Let’s recall last year’s absurd “I am a vote” chants, which celebrated the reduction of political subjectivity to nothing but the periodic vote. Perhaps the only other thing they achieve -beyond bolstering the government’s legitimacy in conducting its privatisation agenda- is to circulate the idea among the participants that all politics is about is applying the rules of free market competition to the electoral game. It should not be that much of a surprise that this game requires iron discipline and the quelling of dissent to keep the spectacle on the road.
Juan Carlos Monedero, whose work I have translated quite a bit of now, has a series on his website titled Urgent Course in Theory of the State. Here is episode 8.
Power, let us recall, is a social relation. Authors such as Hobbes, Rousseau and, of course, pure liberals such as Locke or Montiesquieu, established the idea that power had a special quality that bestowed credibility on its demand for obedience. Power, in se, was legitimate and it had to be obeyed. Whether from its divine origin, whether representing money or knowledge, or arising from elections that transfer the people’s being onto the rulers.
Spinoza, Machiavelli and Marx, open the doors for understanding that power is a social relation, that is, there is no special quality but a context of relation of forces. Obedience is no longer a given. If those who have to obey no longer do so, the edifice collapses.
In football, understood as a commercial enterprise by and for soccer magnates, everything is set up so that the spectacle generates profit. This is why private security forms part of the commercial operation. Sooner or later, someone spontaneously jumps onto the pitch to send out a message. Whatever it might be. It might even greatly interest those who are looking at the match. It does not matter in the eyes of commercial logic. The security mercenaries intercept him and, as if this were not enough, start to give him a beating. For having interrupted the equation Money-Commodity (in this case football)-Money (that is, increased by profit).
But there are people who do not consent to the lynching and who jump in to defend the spontaneous interloper. Even some of the workers in the spectacle, such as the players. Then others join in. Then more and more. And soon, the emperor is naked. The truncheons, so powerful a few seconds previous, are useless. And the dark outfits, intended to frighten and dehumanise, become the uniform of grotesque clowns. What could have turned out, once again, to be the disciplining of someone who dared to break up the commercial football racket becomes a demonstration of popular solidarity. And the mercenaries are on the end of it, getting a taste of their own medicine. The people, up in arms, occupies the square. The sensation remains, beyond compassion for the mercenaries who have gone from executioners to victims, that justice has been done. If there had been no response, the interloper would have been lynched by the mercenaries and then, we can be quite sure, once again by the State apparatus.
But the empowered people, when it says enough, puts a halt to all that machinery which, when it gets no response, appears invincible and unquestionable.
On Remembrance Day, the day of his inauguration as President, Michael D. Higgins received congratulations from the European Commission President José Manuel Barroso. Barroso said:
‘You are taking office at an important time, as Ireland takes resolute action to address difficult economic circumstances and in doing so, is setting an example for other countries facing similar challenges.
Whoops of admiration filled the squares and thoroughfares of Europe: Ireland’s example -for pursuing an internal devaluation programme geared towards driving down wages and living standards, and driving up unemployment as a means of keeping labour costs down, and for taking tens of billions of debts accumulated by private speculators and making the public pay for them- had won some prominent admirers!
But Barroso was merely articulating what he does best: the heartfelt wishes of the countless millions who struggled relentlessly so that he might preside over that august body continuously commissioned by the people of Europe to carry out its will!
Seriously though. At Al Jazeera, Pepe Escobar wrote, of Barroso and others, with regard to Europe’s new post-democratic, technocratic dispensation:
How dare you consult the “rabble” about our Austerity Forever policy, the only one capable of satisfying the financial markets!
This is enough to make unelected zombies such as European Central Bank (ECB) President Mario Draghi (formerly vice-president of Goldman Sachs International), European Council President Herman van Rompuy (member of the Trilateral Commission and the Bilderberg club) and European Commission (EC) head Joao Manuel Barroso to dream of a drone-heavy, Special Forces-filled, NATO no-fly zone to enforce their will.
Escobar rightly points to South America as the space to which social movements in Europe and in the West in general must look in order to get the vampire squid off their peoples’ faces:
South America, which has outlived torrents of IMF’s dreadful “structural adjustments” and is now slowly forging its integration and independence, always denied by the neocolonial one per cent and their local satraps, can be quite helpful.
In a very enlightening discussion with leaders of the Brazilian MST – the Landless Peasant Movement, one of the most important social movements in the world – they explained to me how they have adjusted from fighting for an agrarian reform to fighting a much more nuanced battle against the current, powerful transnational agro-business interests who have forged an intricate alliance with the Lula government.
This shows how even a broad social movement with an enormous popular base has to be constantly calibrating its strategic struggle.
On a parallel front, there must be an urgent English translation of La Potencia Plebeya (“The Plebeian Power”), a collection of essays by Bolivian vice-president Alvaro Garcia Linera, one of the most crucial intellectuals at work in Latin America.
Linera essentially charges how the one per cent and its minions have “sold” the concept of public interest as a separate sphere of civil society. And how civil society can only exist as political if subordinated to mediators or political priests.
I’ll get back to García Linera in a minute, but first I’d like to take a look a piece from Friday’s Irish Times, by John Bruton, former Fine Gael Taoiseach, EU Ambassador to the United States, and present Chairman of the IFSC, Ireland’s Onshore Tax Haven.
Nothing must be done or said now, in any of our retrospections in 2016, that would put that very recent reconciliation of unionism and nationalism at risk.
The Irish trade union movement and its achievements must not be eclipsed by other commemorations, as they were for many years.
But unionism and nationalism have not been reconciled. They are mutually antagonistic political tendencies. Either you think there should be British rule in Ireland, or you don’t. The methods people are willing to adopt in pursuit of their convictions is what has changed.
What Bruton is seeking here is a maintenance of the same state pageantry that accompanied the Queen’s visit: a bogus equivalence between historical antagonisms so as to produce a sterilising consensus that consigns democratic political conflict to the trashcan of history.
Here’s the thing: why do you think the Thatcherite Chairman of the IFSC should be writing about the need to honour trade unions’ struggle for a more egalitarian society? Presumably part of it boils down to getting across the idea that the ultimate and optimum horizon of an egalitarian society was reached in Ireland a long time ago.
But to look at it more systematically, well, let’s take a bit from García Linera’s La potencia plebeya (translation mine).
In Bruton’s article we see the need to insist on the particular form of State –one that places the interests of financial institutions above the needs of its citizens and promotes the needs of financial citizens as though these were identical to the national interest- as a given. The reconciliation of unionism and nationalism is nothing more than the solidification of the 26 county republic with all the dominant characteristics of that state.
We can see the need, in the insistence of the commemoration of union struggles, to maintain continuity with a particular crystallisation of social forces that emerged at the foundation of the State. (As an aside, I have always found the phrase ‘since the foundation of the State’-put to portentous use by many an Irish politician or businessman- somewhat alien, since no corresponding phrase ever got used in the North of Ireland, it being assumed as a matter of course that Northern Ireland was merely a continuation of what always had been). Hence the importance of establishing an official narrative that somehow threads the struggles of the participants in the Dublin Lockout with the struggle to maintain the IFSC as a tax haven.
What García Linera calls a crisis of state, which might arise out of loss of control over the official narrative as a means of mobilising beliefs, is something Bruton, a key servant of finance capital, evidently fears. Perhaps we should start thinking about how these fears might be best exploited.
Crisis of state
Now, as Norbert Elias has shown, these monopolies that give rise to the State are historical processes that need to be continuously reproduced. This means that the state-based society is not a given, a fixed fact, but a movement. This monopoly of ‘physical force capital’ and of ‘recognition capital’ that gives rise to the State, generates in turn another capital, ‘state capital’, which is a power over the different species of capital (economic, cultural, social, symbolic), over their reproduction and their rates of conversion, meaning that the scenario of social disputes and competition in the State is constituted, deep down, by social confrontations on account of the characteristics, control and directionality of this bureaucratically administered state capital.
Therefore in analytical terms one can discern in the organisation of the State at least three structural components that regulate its functioning, stability and representative capacity. The first is the array of social forces, both ruling and ruled, which define the administrative characteristics and general direction of public policies. Every State is a political synthesis of society, but in hierarchies of coalitions of forces that possess a greater decisive capacity (state-bureaucratic capital), and other forces, composed of groups that have lesser or scant capacity to influence the decision making of major common affairs. In this way, the different state types or forms correspond analytically to the correlation of forces, which are always the result and temporary crystallisation of a short period of intense conflagration, more or less violent, of social forces that contest the reconfiguration of positions and the establishing of positions in control over state capital.
Secondly, there is the system of institutions, of public norms and rules, through which all social forces achieve co-existence, hierarchically, during a lasting period in the political life of a country. Deep down, this normative system of incentives, signals, prohibitions and social guarantees, which is established through institutions, is a form of materialisation of the foundational correlation of forces, which gave rise to a type of state regime, and which, through this institutional frame, is reproduced via legal means.
As a third component of a State regime there is the system of mobilising beliefs. In strict terms, every State, under any of its historical forms, is a structure of categories of perception and common thoughts, capable of bringing about, among social sectors both governing and governed, ruling and ruled, a social and moral conformism over the sense of the world materialised through the cultural repertoires and rituals of the State. When these three components of the political life of a country show vitality and function dependably, we speak of an optimal correspondence between state regime and society. When one or all of these factors stagnate, dilute or break irredeemably, we face a State crisis, manifest in the divorce and antagonism between the political world, its institutions, and the flow of actions by civil organisations.
You see, running an occupation is like making love to a…anyway, what gets me, watching things from afar, is the utter confusion that seems to be prevailing with regard to Ireland’s still nascent occupations.
No doubt the people who have braved the floods and wind and cold and threats of petrol bombing and knives getting pulled on them and managed to maintain an occupation are not all that confused at all, at least in terms of the amount of work they have to put into things in order to keep the occupation going. The confusion seems to reign at a different level, at the level of where exactly these events fit into the wider political moment, or perhaps as some see it, at the level of how to make these confused people fit into the wider political moment.
There is a process of discussion underway at the Occupy Dame Street assemblies, geared towards the question of whether or not the assembly/camp/whatevah ought to agree to the invitation from Dublin Council of Trade Unions to participate in the preparation of that organisation’s upcoming Pre-Budget Demonstration.
The demonstration will, according to the Dublin Council of Trade Unions Facebook page, demand the following:
Stop the policy of austerity – reverse the cuts.
Tax the wealthy not the needy.
For a public investment programme to create jobs.
Personally, I see nothing wrong with any of these demands. Or rather, I should really say that despite my previous reservations about what the articulation of demands actually achieves, the actions being demanded here are consistent with a struggle against austerity politics of the Fine Gael/Labour coalition in collaboration with the European Central Bank and the IMF. Moreover I think a mobilisation of trade union power is an indispensable condition for both protection against further hits and, at some point, their reversal.
But nonetheless, whilst I will attend this march and bring the family, I am quite wary of the idea that there ought to be a group participating in this demonstration under the name ‘Occupy Dame Street’.
Let me explain, as briefly as I can before I get on to the fun bit of this post.
It is plain that we are living in a time of immense concentration of wealth and power in the hands of the few at the expense of the many, and it is out of this predicament that the ‘We are the 99%’ arose. But there are political-institutional ramifications to this concentration of wealth and power, briefly put: the control exercised by finance capital over institutions that have long pronounced themselves democratic (sovereign governments) and those that never have (the ECB, the IMF, NATO, the World Bank); the concentration of control over mass media in the hands of a few oligarchs; the dismantling of welfare states, labour rights and social provisions established through long labour struggles; the marketisation and privatisation of all that is public and held in common. I could go on, as I have elsewhere, ad nauseam.
It’s therefore understandable that people who see themselves on the left and hankering for some urgent coherent resistance movement should see it appropriate that the occupations, particularly Occupy Dame Street, should play some part in the struggles of organised labour, given that they operate in the image of effective political action conducted elsewhere, particularly in the United States with regard to Occupy Wall Street, Oakland, and so on. And given the fact that organised labour has played a significant role in maintaining these occupations, and given moreover the fact that these occupations have spurred on a greater militancy on the part of unions, the participation of Occupy Dame Street would appear to make perfect sense.
‘Appear’ being the operative word. Care needs to be taken not to try and superimpose what is happening elsewhere onto what has been happening with the occupations in Ireland. But if the problem of getting a satisfactory resolution from the Occupy Dame Street assembly, so that it forms part of a broader movement against austerity, is causing frustration, it cannot be treated by ignoring what the occupations in Ireland hold in common with the occupations elsewhere.
There are plenty such things, but here I’m referring specifically to the modus operandi of assembly-based decision making, according to which anyone may attend, and where consensus is required in order for a proposal to be passed. It is a mistake to see this as some sort of kooky confection, when in fact it is an elemental component of the occupation. The horizon of these occupations, even if it is not that well articulated at times by certain people, is different to that of the demonstrations which demand that those in power hear and grant their demands: it is absolute democracy.
If people find it hard to understand why Occupy Dame Street is reluctant to participate in a given march or demonstration alongside other groups, it is because the way they pose the question to themselves contains a category error.
Occupy Dame Street, as with other occupations elsewhere, in terms of its effective operation, and despite people’s attempts to identify a ‘core group’ or the ‘leaders’, is an assembly of whoever turns up, not a group with a fixed identity.
It is no more to true to say that the people at Occupy Dame Street have confused political ideas, or are rampant individualists, than it is to say that the people at Occupy Dame Street are members of political parties whose political ideology contains the ontological presupposition that the masses are at any given point stupider than they are.
In order for Occupy Dame Street to take part in someone else’s march alongside other groups, it would have to constitute itself as a group. In this case what there is now would no longer exist. The problem of understanding why Occupy Dame Street appears so intractable in engaging in joint actions with other groups will not resolved by insisting that reality correct the category error.
The important thing that Occupy Dame Street possesses –and this is something it shares with other occupations elsewhere- is its capacity to enact an agora based on the equal voice and participation of all, that refuses representation or incorporation by the power of the sovereign, or by any other entity that seeks accommodation or usurpation or imitation of the sovereign.
It is this radical refusal –of representation, of the idea that the reigning political order has any legitimacy- from which it and all the other occupations and acampadas derive their power.
This is true even if the assemblies are idiotic and mind-numbing and even if you have any number of people who turn up and say things like “we want political reform”, “the government better pull its finger out”, or “we need real capitalism, not this bailing out of the people who gambled” or “why won’t Michael D come and speak to us?”
If you are concluding none of this is of any importance, you probably want to stop reading now, before it gets into Abraham and Isaac, Freud, jellyfish and Robert Johnson.
The piece below comes from July of this year, when the camps in Spain were agonising over the question of when or if they should pack up their tents and move elsewhere. It is by Raimundo Viejo, and was originally published on his blog, On The Wobbly’s Road. It adopts a creative problem-solving approach to the problem of how to act decisively when faced with an oppressor power: in this case, liberal democracy. I hope it gives a better understanding of what is at stake in these events, and the problems and the possibilities of the organisational forms employed.
Bear in mind that ‘medusa’ means both the monster of Greek myth and also the jellyfish.
The Dance of Medusa
The latest assemblies (and quite a few of those still to come) passionately debate the persistence of the acampadas. In metropolitan areas, the extension into neighbourhoods may be taking some time, but the expansion phase seems to be reaching maturity, covering practically the entire territory. Paraphrasing Nietzsche: “the movement is growing, pity the sovereign who makes room for movement”.
In some small and medium population nuclei (the fringes of social networks), however, important tactical changes are beginning to be experimented with which will mark the deployment of the movement. In Toledo, for example, the centre has already dissolved, ceding protagonism to the neighbourhoods. This is undoubtedly a simpler decision than that of Sol or Plaça de Catalunya. In the metropolitan “epicentres” an unequivocal signal is awaited to make the decisive step. The fetishism of the acampada may turn out to cost the movement too dearly and at this time vectors are needed that look towards creative, mobilising and timely exits.
Debating amid uncertainty, getting it right in decision: democratic politics
In the debate over the dissolution of the assemblies, the main stumbling block is the inevitable uncertainty that always invades people who have to take a decision. It is only through interpretative frames inherited from the past that one can operate with certainty. However, certainty does not mean getting it right. Getting it right, in fact, depends on the combination of chance and ability. Furthermore, the old ideological certainties (even if they were successful interpretative frames in the past) never work as guarantees of anything when the situations have changed. And still less in moments of constituent rupture like the present one, where the force of the event calls everything into question, where the multitudinous expression of the political overwhelms the impoverished ideological machineries of the past.
The time and place of the decision always produce a horror vacui. The explanation is based on the decision being constitutive of politics: it is the political in itself. Politics is not a question of power; and still less power in that funcionalist conception that understands it as the capacity to oblige someone to do something she does not want to do. Politics interpellates us around the deciding: who decides what, how do they decide it, with whom do they decide it, against whom is it decided…That is why politics is also conflict, because most times decisions cannot be made unless it is against someone (against the oppressor, against whoever holds power). To believe that dialogue will solve everything, that it can avoid every confrontation is simply false.
The main problem of the assemblies in taking a decision about the acampadas is not, therefore, a matter of the mechanical reproduction of old prescriptions, but a contentious experimentation of theoretical practice in the frame of a struggle against an oppressor power (even though this power is exercised through the least bad of methods: liberal democracy). At moments like the present we must try to formulate alternatives in the absence of organisational models that can be easily (immediately?) understood. The absence of empirically established reference points can end up channelling deliberations towards the repetition of past errors and the attempt (which will fail in advance) to put into practice organisational experiments totally alien to the social body that is the protagonist and that gives life to this process: the multitude.
Do it yourself: a process without an instruction manual.
We lack, therefore, an instruction manual for deciding about the acampadas. But this does not mean that we cannot use our ingenuity in order to find answers to our questions. To this end we possess a formidable cerebral machinery capable of associating ideas, of developing concepts in common and of formulating intelligent responses in a collective manner.
In this post we set forth a graphic image, a visual poem of the natural collective intellect that allows us to intervene in the autonomous development of the current process. On the far left many seek their old certainties and prefer to preach their obsolete Leninist What is to be done?; or their old anarchist manual. It’s a safe bet there will be a Trotskyist who will speak to us about permanent revolution. The old stratagems of the farthest left have shown themselves, however, since the beginning. As the movement has gone on the squares have become a perfect diagrammatic device for detecting the border between collective intellect and psychopathological identitarianism.
In this marketplace of certainties other sects have also appeared, religious ones, and new age groups for soft heads and conservative postmodernities. We also have people who resolve everything with a properly functioning State, as if the State-form were not an intrinsic element in the configuration of control. And we have more than enough cynical reason and an enormous amount of innate pessimists; passive-aggressive psyches that have already foretold failure no matter what. What they don’t explain, by the way, is what it is that makes them waste their time among us, the multitude. There is nothing so easy as to hold certainties: just turn to superstition, to transcendentalism, to mysticism or to statistics.
And if everything has to change, what will we be left with? The structure of the decision
Experience brings us, however, to address the problem from another point of view, to wit: the point of view that situates itself within the structure of democratic decision. In democracy she who decides well (correctly) does so always in the best exercise of her capacities, but also always within a margin of uncertainty. By contrast with authoritarianisms (and this is why power has chosen limited or liberal democracy) democracy institutionalises uncertainty by way of its own procedures. Contingency is inevitable, it is true: the contingency of an entire political order inherent in any constituent rupture requires a complete democratisation, it can be done, and it is called absolute democracy.
We are referring to that democracy in which participation is direct or under an imperative mandate; that which does not know any limits in its themes of debate, that which takes sovereign decisions without its subordination to any co-ercive power. A democracy which , since it is not the object of bounds that are temporal (legislatures) or spatial (parliaments, governments and other spaces of power), develops in a way that is unlimited, process-based, democratising all that is democratisable; starting with democracies that are truncated, representative or liberal. This is the democracy that has started off in the squares, transforming them into authentic agoras.
Politics reloaded: a new political grammar
To be able to debate everything, to be able to change everything (to assume the constituent horizon of absolute democracy) entails, inevitably, that politics should be questioned starting from its most elemental and self-evident foundations. Thus, for example, we need to question the individual, but not so that it can be itself, in the manner of psychoanalysis, but rather to redefine it as a symbiote, schizoanalytically.
A different political anthropology
The symbiote was an alternative at the onset of modernity, when life was still developing in spaces that were very marked by the common, and capitalism still had not constituted its own subject: the individual; that unencumbered self, impersonal, without singular attributes derived from the common; a narcissist and possessive self, opposed to a we open to the other and based on solidarity.
Althusius, the political theorist of the federal principle was perfectly conscious of the need for a political anthropology founded in a different singularity. He found it in the symbiote, which exemplified the slow process of formation of the social body that begins with the mother-child relationship. Althusius was perfectly aware that we are not born human, but rather we become so. See the following case:
Can this singularity freely sign a social contract? Can it render operative the Rawlsian veil of ignorance? The liberal fiction of the contract is nothing more than the reality of submission to a sovereign power that rules us through the medium of fear. Hobbes, as the legitimating theorist of modern absolutism and father of liberal contractualism, knew this well.
A different contractuality
All political theory also needs an idea of the social bond, pact or contract. A bond that must be free and that leads us, through itself, to link political anthropology with the constitution of the social order. The possessive individualism of the modern capitalist political grammar finds its solution in liberal contractualism. This is based, in turn, on the Abrahamic covenant, in the modality of the bond that links Abraham to Yahweh and drives him to sacrifice his son out of obedience to a transcendent power.
In the mytheme of the sacrifice of Isaac, the symbiotic bind of father/son is broken and the patria potestas is instituted. The power of God (the State) is the power of the father to kill his son (from the moment of birth) and, with this, to demand his death whenever he considers it necessary. It is in this lineage that Hobbes speaks whenever he announces the terms in which the contract between individuals is found at the base of the modern sovereign. Foucault put it very well regarding the classical structure of sovereignty: “a power of death, which allows life to be governed (vitae necisque potestas) . Here is the place from which we are governed.
Satan will set us free
The alternative that is found in the Althusian political anthropology (of the symbiote) is formulated in a completely different contractuality: in a contractuality that is not a pact with god, but his materialist negation: the pact with the devil. Against the Abrahamic mytheme, the Faustian mytheme (from the Faust that gives it the name to Robert Johnson and the origin of the blues) it has always been at the root of autonomy. Satan is disobedience of the sovereign power which inaugurates historical movement. Without him there would never have been, in accordance with biblical mythology, a human history.
By contrast with God, whose freedom is always a freedom in obedience, a freedom under the aegis and observance of an absolute power, the devil offers us a freedom based in the structure of a decision which, by being possible, is authentic. Disobedience is the condemnation to fend for oneself, to confront the pain and the reality of the material world without an eternal promise; to abandon, once and for all, the device of transcendence so as to assume the immanent character of decision (that is, the political). With Satan, as with Faust, our decisions have effect over our destiny. With god, as with Abraham, our decision is always supervised, incomplete.
It is not by chance, therefore, that the first modern State should have been the absolutist State (a State legitimised in god), nor that equal dignity from birth had to be invoked (at the start of the first article of the universal declaration of the rights of man and citizen) in order to inaugurate democratisation. In recent times, the global expansion of liberal democracy, we are arriving, however, at a dilemma that is different from that of obedience to God. The question is not liberal democracy yes or liberal democracy no. Rather, the question is: how far should democracy go? Absolute democracy offers us the possibility of an answer.
But absolute democracy will not be a gift of divine origin, as neither was democratisation in its liberal phase. What is needed, from the formulation of an autonomous normative framework, is to produce the concepts that articulate and bring into being the organisational model in order to get beyond this impass of deciding week in week out what to do with the acampadas. And here is our proposal.
Learn from nature: become animal
The other day we referred to the swarm as the guiding organising principle of the multitude. We were referring to the capcity of the collective intellect to organise resistance and to win contests with power through disobedience. Here, finally, is the terrain of the praxis of these days.
Sometimes our theorisations have been accused of unnecessary theorising, or intellectual onanism, of abstruse idealism and things worse than that. The anti-intellectualism that resides in the heads of a political culture marked by centuries of inquisitorial power, pulpits and autocratic preachers is well known. There is nothing, then, like the relation of evidence with the concrete to contrast hypotheses (bearing in mind there will always be the blinder still who do not wish to see).
Watch closely and compare the two following videos. The first one relates to the aerial view of the confrontations between power and the multitude last Saturday in Barcelona.
The second one is taken from nature:
The parallels are obvious. The multitude further up, one could say, deleuzianly, “makes a rhizome” with the shoal of fish further down. Without vanguard parties, the multitude achieves its objective: to recover the square that the sovereign illegitimately denies it, since its decision can only be instituted in the normative contradictions based on the exercise of democracy as an absolute procedurality and the need to limit democracy in order to structure a regime whose power is also defined as power over social body.
What can be seen in this example, against biopolitical domination, is a pre-existing politics, which is born in the moment prior to the constitution of the modern sovereign and which establishes an other institutionality, under a federal (symbiotic) structure of sovereignty, in which being one depends on the rest of the irreducible singularities. We are talking about a “zoēpolitics”, a politics previous to the institution of biopolitical command, a politics capable of acting in the total incertainty of contingency, a politics in which the collective intellect imposes itself on the instrumental rationality of possessive individualism (the scrounger or free-rider from the theory of rational action)
The dance of Medusa.
In the article we have just mentioned, we pointed out a double strategic movement that required our intelligence for organising movement. On the one hand, the moment of antagonism or confrontation with power (however much, unfortunately, the presence of autocratic political cultures, might never allow for the drawing of a clear frontier between us and them, in the manner of Schmittian argument). This is the moment of the swarm of the multitude, the (real) moment that can be visualised in Plaça de Catalunya.
On the other hand we have the agonistic or confrontationational moment (note that to confront [in the original, confrontar] is not to face (enfrentar) between different different viewpoints; the struggle in the agora to adopt the decision that is not based in the liberty of the individual but rather in the liberty of she who thinks differently (in accord with the apothegm of Rosa Luxemburg). This is a fight that has no end, that will not manage to re-establish any hegemony, but rather which unfolds in an unlimited horizon that is a-cratic and constituent. It is, if you will, the constitution of the commons.
Another day we will address the endogenous problem of the movement: the agonistic problem. Now, however, we must focus on the debate about lifting the camps. This deliberation, we were saying, requires the enunciation of a strategic model that integrates, in coherent and natural manner (zoēpolitics) the solution to the equation set forth by the elements of central camps, extension to neighbourhoods, moments of rupture with sovereign power. We propose observing the jellyfish (in Spanish, medusa).
From the Medusian mytheme to the zoological medusa: antagonistic machinery
In Greek mythology, Medusa is a tellurian monster who, owing to her chthonic condition, comes up out of the earth and turns whoever looks at her to stone. But Medusa is also, in the classical work by Freud, the mythopoeic fissure in the configuration of the oedipal psyche. Medusa is the sexuated warrior mother. Medusa is feminine ire. Her dance is antagonism with the structure of the modern sovereign that is established by the patria potestas. Medusa is a matriot, not a patriot. Medusa is Ulrike Meinhof.
In order to resolve the equation posed to the assemblies by lifting the camps let us resort once more to the example of nature. Here is another video that shows us how the medusa-animal swims:
Let us take its dynamic and place in the brain of the medusa (at its contractile centre but which provides its movement with direction) the central squares in which the first acampadas have appeared and from which the modular repertoire of collective action has been transmitted. This focussed and direct decontraction (from the central assemblies) towards the extremes (the neighbourhood assemblies) is what allows the consequent and complementary push forward (the mobilisations for disruptive action that split from sovereign power: for example, that of 15J). Operationalising the model quickly. The decisional series to adopt would be:
Make the centres temporary autonomous zones, territorially unstable (like the shoal of fish that surround the shark in the previous video) and which, moreover contract (disappearing fleetingly from their spatio-temporal location) in order to..
Relocate to the neighbourhoods (the tentacles of the medusa) the production of movement (the movements of the tentacles that expand out shaking the entire territory), that is..
The push that is directed toward the moment of constituent rupture with sovereign power, thereby..
The autonomous and temporary reappearance of the central agora can evaluate its own decisions by organising a strategy for the medium and longer term. Those who are aware of the reflections of Hardt and Negri about the pack of wolves, may object that the plan is to return to that model, based in the centrality of the (armed) vanguard party. This could not be further from the truth. Jellyfish swim in shoals (swarms):
The question, then, is to organise metropolitan areas in accord with the dynamic of the medusa and the whole of the movement, transnationally, in a proliferating global shoal of medusas. The medusa-animal manifests a simple structure, easily reproducible in an artificial manner by the collective intellect. Take a look at this other video:
Mechanical reproduction is simple, but effective. It is not for nothing that the medusas are some of the oldest forms of life that remain extant. Perhaps in their movement we can find the tactical response that we are seeking to the dilemma of leaving the squares.
And if we want to build a resistant, antagonistic machinery, able to confront power successfully, to organise the direction of the movement from collective intellect and to co-ordinate the dynamics of assemblies in a harmonious way, we would do well to become medusas navigating in the ocean of the world to come.
Translation of a piece by Isaac Rosa, whose new book La mano invisible (The Invisible Hand) I have been about to begin reading for the last few months. His survey of countries under the watchful eye of the IMF and the ECB excludes Ireland, but it too, along with its fairytales of democratic revolutions enacted at the ballot box, is a small part of the same story of anti-popular upheaval.
After the Arab Spring, which has pulled down several ruling heads in North Africa, Europe is living through its own autumn, which is also costing various people their seats. No, I know that the dictatorial governments of the Maghreb have nothing to do with European democracies. But above all they differ in the way in which people leave power on one side or the other of the Mediterranean: whilst over there they have succumbed to popular revolutions, here it is the crisis and the economic powers that are collecting political cadavers.
Papandreou in Greece has just fallen, after the referendum havoc, following in the steps of Sócrates in Portugal, who stepped down in March after resigning himself to the European bailout, and who later lost the elections. The next in the deck could be Berlusconi, corralled in the Parliament whilst the IMF visits Italy to oversee compliance with the adjustment. What neither corruption nor velines nor the many eccentricities of the millionaire prime minister could not do, the crisis shall.
After Portugal, Greece and Italy, it will be the turn of Zapatero-Rubalcaba at the polls, the final stop of a long via crucis; and in spring it may also be Sarkozy’s turn in the presidential elections. Nor does Merkel sit very securely in her seat, after losing six regional elections in nearly a year.
This is the European autumn, which goes about devouring its rulers. But by contrast with the Arab Spring, here only heads roll but nothing changes: with or without them economic policy will remain the same, dictated by the IMF and the ECB, with even greater turns of the screw on the citizens. In fact, the alternative to the fallen governments has led to a turn to the right (Portugal and soon Spain), and to the formation of governments of either national unity or a technocratic profile, as in Greece, where the main candidate is the ex-governor of the Central Bank, and ex-vicepresident of the ECB, and as will probably be the case in Italy if Berlusconi gives way.
No-one is crying for the fallen rulers, but there isn’t much partying either.
One of the interesting things from watching the stirrings of a movement in Ireland based on the occupation of public spaces is how patterns from elsewhere are replicated. One example is in references to the occupiers, on social networks, in terms such as ‘crusties’, ‘hippies’, ‘bums’ whose campaign, it is often claimed, is doomed to collapse under the weight of its own contradictions because you cannot be opposed to capitalism and use mobile phones at the same time, or because the state pays your dole money and therefore it is contradictory to protest against the state, and so on.
What this shows once again is that although capitalist ideology now celebrates individual freedom (to dress as one wishes, to buy whatever consumer goods one wishes, to make whatever career choices one wishes and so on), whenever this conception of freedom is challenged, even in mild and ostensibly unthreatening ways, its true authoritarian character quickly reveals itself.
Dressing up as clowns, as this translated article by Juan Carlos Monedero shows, can be a dangerous business, but it serves a definite purpose whenever a movement starts approaching the truth.
The 15-M as question
The 15-M is emotional, it lacks thought. With only emotions, without thought, you don’t get anywhere – Zygmunt Bauman
Neurobiologists know that the passions reside in our most primitive brain. Every “rational” decision is “emotional” beforehand. To hold back a negative emotion it is necessary to have “a very strong positive emotion”. This is not a wager on irrationality, but on an “emotioned reason” to get beyond the traps of a world that says protesting is terrorist, laughing is subversive, the unemployed are lazy, the students are unruly and women are pushy and lightweight. Dressing up as clowns to demonstrate against social cutbacks means that not only do the charges of the riot police prop up finance capital, but also their image as executioners of Fofo and Miliki (popular children’s clowns on Spanish TV from the 1970s onward). Very intelligent emotionality.
The left has only been fired up when it dared to present a different world which was always rather unspecific. “Liberty, equality and fraternity” in the French Revolution, “Land and Freedom” in the Mexican Revolution, “Bread, Peace and Land” in the Russian Revolution or “Country, Socialism or Death” from the Cuban and Venezuelan processes. Does it seem likely that the iron cage of consumerism can be brought down without firing up those who are to saw through its bars?
The 15-M movement has managed to achieve the impossible for any previous international: to call the first global demonstration against the capitalist model. A G-90. Countries came out onto the street to recover democracy in the place it was born: in the squares. A moment for downfall. In less than six months. A question, not an answer.
In the face of the shock of the crisis, the popular reaction toward the dictatorship of the markets is charting a different course from those of tradition. The emotion of the 15-M is more similar to the generosity that is born out of disasters (the Mexican earthquake, the nuclear disaster in Fukushima or the landslides after the floods in Latin America). At these moments, egotism is suspended. It is a matter of struggling for the basics. Out of this, optimism is born. Are self-help books or the guidance of vanguards better? The joy of 15-M bursts the dykes of parties, unions, institutions. It makes them more useful when it breaks the constraints on unions to defend public education. It also challenges them when it is the citizens themselves who vote and share the vision of the 15-M.
When a bolt of lightning strikes at night, the field lights up and renders visible what was hidden. Squinting is not enough. There are too many veils. It is a question of sensibility. Emotion is what turns pain into knowledge, knowledge into wanting, wanting into power, and power into doing. A young person who sets fire to himself because they have taken away his means of survival, students who pitch a tent in the middle of the city, poor people who confront the rich in the midst of their stronghold, an evicted man in tears, a president who looked in the eye and then deceived. Only sensibility can call forth absent reason. Only emotion can break the enclosure of thought brought about by overinformation, consumerist desire, fear of the future, the denial of the past and anxieties about uncertainty and punishment. If the system only understands objects – a mortgage in arrears, a costly university place, an old person or a sick person who causes the deficit to rise, an intern who makes the debt more expensive, a protest that angers the banks- sensibility restores people to their place.
To govern tomorrow? The 15-M would have to sign, like the Lenin of 1917, onerous peace treaties if it were to assume that responsibility before time. It would lose territory, it would pay reparations, it would weigh down its flight. It still has gotten into these fights. It is not the answer to the sclerosis of neoliberal capitalism and representative democracy: it is the diagnosis of its illness. Why get sick alongside them? It is not a party nor must it be one right now. A party is a means to an end. The 15-M is an end in itself: a great conversation that by knowing what it does not want, will end up knowing what it does want.
Without leaders, without a programme, without a structure, the risk of disappearance in the ebb of the movement is there. But the crisis of the system and the impossibility of finding solutions from the inside will keep feeding the search. This does not mean verticalism. It is time for a more horizontal social involvement. We have to reinvent governance and turn it into democracy. Political decisions born of debate, executed through organisation and supervised by discussion restored to those below.
Whereas it was freedom demanded in 1968, now it is equality. Despoiled nature, an uncertain future and everyday violence cannot sustain differences. Hence the strength of the camaraderie in the 15-M. For this reason also the importance of social networks, for their horizontality, for their relations between equals who recognise and treat each other as such.
In the 15-M there is a confluence of veterans punished by the system and also middle classes angered that, for the first time, they have felt treated like proletarians. From the abuse they recognise themselves and they reinvent themselves. Here part of their amiability can be understood. The struggle against authoritarianism generated a type of party. Against the cold war, a different one. Out of the 15-M there will come many different ways of organising politically. The important thing will be to see how much there is a constant back and forth to the movement that puts its stamp on the ways of practising politics.
Faced with a rigid and ever less tolerant capitalism –not at all liquid, with apologies to Bauman- the 15-M articulates its opposition with intelligence. The system knows how to defend itself when it is denied or when it is fought, but it doesn’t know what to do when it is overwhelmed. This has been the strategy of the movement for just 5 months. It turns upside down the theories of those intellectuals ignored by insurgent peoples that say: “if reality doesn’t look like theory, too bad for reality”. A stubborn and irreverent reality which, with apologies to consecrated intellectuals and with the help of poets, like lightning, never stops*
*The reference here is to El rayo que no cesa, a collection of poems by Miguel Hernández, who who fought in the trenches on the republican side in the Spanish Civil War and died at the age of 31 in 1942, incarcerated under vile conditions in one of Franco’s prisons.
When deciding whether or not demands make sense, it is worth bearing in mind that demands are made of people, or of institutions. Undemocratic institutions are not designed to listen to democratic demands. This is why you never hear of an IMF delegation arriving in a country and saying that in addition to sorting out sovereign debt payments, they are also going to make sure that the people of the country have sufficient say in the economic decisions that determine their everyday lives. Institutions that are supposed to be democratic but are not will probably be only too happy to hear people making demands, because it is through the act of hearing people’s demands that they maintain the illusion that they are democratic. So every year there is a stream of different groups making their pre-budget submissions to the Minister for Finance, and the main effect of this is to endow the Minister for Finance with a democratic sensibility that he does not possess. Therefore: if a demand is to be made, of whom is it to be made? And once it has been established that a demand is to be made, and the person(s) or institution(s) of whom it is to be made have been identified, is there any point in issuing a demand when you do not think there is any chance of it being met? That is, on what grounds should a democratic assembly issue a demand for show? This is what I think any time I hear people criticise Occupy wherever for not having clear demands.
The issue of the participation of political parties in assemblies and marches is contentious. The initial statement from Occupy Dame Street was a request for people to leave their political party at the door. But most people see politics through the prism of political parties. So it might be a good idea, at some stage, to articulate just what the problem is with political parties. Are they hierarchical organisations thronged with power-hungry bureaucrats whose specific intention it is to crush democratic deliberation and co-opt the multitude into the logic of the State? If they are, it might be a good idea to say so. In fact it might be a good idea to say more things full stop. At a less contentious level, it might also be worth pointing out that voting in a new government comprising different parties changed nothing, despite claims of a ‘democratic revolution’ after the last election. The government is still doing the bidding of the IMF and passing off pragmatic decisions taken by technocrats as victories for the people won through the doggedness of their representatives. It might also be worth pointing out that the current government is lying through its teeth day in day out about what economic recovery actually means (hint: profits) and why they are cutting social provision and forcing down wages (hint: profits). Even if you put your faith in representative democracy, which is what the new President Michael D. Higgins claims to do, there can be no such thing as a representative government composed of liars. So why not start accuse the government of lying?
Whilst I recognise the immense difficulties encountered in maintaining an occupation, it still seems a bit odd that for a collective that purports to be part of the 99% (i.e. most people) and therefore opposed to the rule of the 1% (i.e. the owning class), there has not been any sort of naming of those people who make up the 1%, and the institutions that serve them. For instance, if you look at last week’s Irish Independent, which is owned by two extremely wealthy and influential men, there are a series of photographs of extremely wealthy and influential man Michael O’Leary stripped down to swimming togs whilst several female Ryanair cabin crew stand in their underwear. According to the report, Ryanair hopes to raise up to €100,000 for charity from the photos, which will be printed in a calendar. Ryanair reported pre-tax profits of €440m. The contribution of 0.02% of its profits to its chosen charity would have had precisely the same effect on its designated recipients. But it would not have allowed O’Leary to give his hammer-of-the-PC-leftie-dungaree-wearing-feminist-union men persona yet another outing, whilst dignifying him with a beatific glow for doing a lot of work for charidee. This sort of thing is abhorrent, and there are lots of easy targets. For instance: John Bruton the former Taoiseach, is the chairman of the IFSC, Ireland’s Own Tax Haven. Tax havens do not receive a great degree of attention in Ireland, for obvious reasons. However, popular movements in other countries (for instanc e Spain) care a great deal about the harmful effects of tax havens. Well, if the chairman of the tax haven in Ireland is a former Taoiseach whom Wikileaks cables describe (approvingly, one might add) as having spent most of the 1980s advocating Thatcherite economic steps, that says a lot about the interests that dominate the country. Basically I am saying that Occupy wherever should think about naming names.
This is a translation of a recent Público column by Juan Carlos Monedero. The Warren Buffett quote about how ‘There’s class warfare, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning’ has almost a near commonplace of late, and the Occupy Wall Street conception of the 99% vs the 1% seems to have re-introduced the idea of class conflict, albeit in a fairly nebulous fashion. And yet for all that, how much do these notions really impinge on the tens of millions poised to endure the brunt of austerity policies over the next number of years?
There was a €700,000,000 unsecured Anglo Irish bond paid the other day. There was no formal obligation on the Irish government to pay it, but it did, and with public money that could have gone to schools, or hospitals, or welfare payments. That the government did pay the bond, and was met with so little resistance in so doing, is a strong indication of who’s winning at the moment, even if, here and there, pockets of resistance appear to be emerging.
A worrying rule of three
If everyone can see what’s waiting for them down the line, the strange thing is not that the markets are distrustful. What is really a mystery is that the citizens keep trusting.
We can see that whilst the savings banks were sinking, their bosses were getting rich, something we found out about only because the crash of these financial entities has brought publicity that exists in scarcely any other area. Goldman Sachs has named the most recent Treasury Secretaries in the United States since the times of Reagan at least. And the advisor to Zapatero is now the adviser to the financial bosses’ organization. Solbes is at Barclays and Rato at Bankia. And Cospedal has numerous salaries whilst Rajoy knows he is paid “a little more” than what people remind him.
The same people who condemn others to hunger are the ones who die from gluttony. The markets, which are in fact networks of privileged information, know that they shouldn’t trust anyone and this is why they are so sensitive to any movement, especially those that come from the banking system or from politics, which are becoming more and more difficult to differentiate. The stock markets know –its instruments do- that the waters they abide in are full of sharks. Whatever they avoid will get caught by someone else.It’s a question of speed. It’s a game of musical chairs. They know it. The citizens don’t.
To mention this doesn’t amount to much. We can hear these complaints even on public radio. But no transformation is brought about. The overinformation, the jocular tone, and the saturation, with regard to the horror, ensure that nothing happens. So too the hope that you will not be singled out as one of the ones who will sink. Historically, quite a luckless strategy.
There would still be the escrache , that citizen tactic invented by the children of the disappeared during Argentina’s dictatorship, which consisted of following the torturers to the bakery, to the door of their house, to the cinema, to tell everyone that these people of an adorable appearance were monsters.
When the enriched director of the insolvent Caja del Mediterraneo was asked if he had a clear conscience, without moving a muscle on his face, and knowing he was backed by the bishop[i] in charge of proceedings*, replied “completely”. In any event, that same night he was able to go off and dine in the most expensive restaurant in town without being interrupted.
There is a hidden angle to the educational reforms. The privileged classes, with ever increasing clarity, do not want their little darlings mixing with the rabble. The aristocratic elite has always organised parties so that their daughters, young and reckless, do not foolishly fall in love with someone from another class. The sooner they get engaged the better, because that way they would go off, not with the neighbourhood’s black trumpet player[ii], as the song went, but instead with someone who had a few generations of solvency behind him. The ones who can still get into certain colleges and certain universities.
In these times, differences must be assured. And this logic runs through nearly all transformations. In colleges, in neighbourhoods, in universities. Hence Esperanza Aguirre’s horror that someone might be hanging about in her doorway. Now that ETA and its macabre excuse is no more, maybe those who really have reason to be angry will come along.
[i]The reference here is to Modesto Crespo, a former car dealer who became president of the Caja de Ahorros del Mediterráneo (CAM), a building society that had to bailed out by the Bank of Spain.
El País reported that his meteoric rise enjoyed the support of the hegemonic political power in the Valencian regional government, but that on top of that, he brought ‘religious fervour’ to the role. Described as ‘sombre and religious’ by the same paper, the question was put to him in his capacity as the chair of the Misteri de Elche, a well known annual festival celebrating the feast of the Assumption. Also on the board of governors sits the Bishop of the diocese of Orihuela-Alicante. The festival is still sponsored by the CAM.
[ii]Reference to the song Ligia Elena by Panamanian singer –actor-lawyer-politician Rubén Blades, about the racist reaction of a rich family to one of the daughters falling in love and running off with a black trumpet player. Video here:
There is an election here in Spain on the 20th of November, which is the anniversary of Franco’s death. The most likely result will be a victory for the Partido Popular, the chief spiritual and material inheritors of Franco’s fascist dictatorship. The slightly odd thing is, according to a recent survey, 55% of Partido Popular voters view the 15-M movement in a positive light.
So how does one thing –parliamentary electoral politics where political power is concentrated in the hands of two neoliberal parties- relate to the other –radical democratic street activism and assembly? I was asked a few weeks back, when giving a talk on Dame Street about the 15-M movement and its relevance, and mentioning the matter of the likely election outcome, what the future held for the 15-M. I think the best part of my answer was the bit when I said “I don’t know”.
The translated article below, by Jorge Moruno and Raimundo Viejo, may therefore shed a bit more light. And it may not appeal too much to those who hope for movements such as this one to incorporate themselves into recognisable historical sequences of emancipatory struggle.
(A note on translation: I have translated ‘común’ as ‘common’. The association between ‘común’ and ‘comunismo’ in Spanish is perhaps stronger than the association between ‘common’ and communism’ in English, but the roots in both cases are the same. Abbreviations: 15-M = 15th May, the day of the first Democracia Real Ya mobilisation. 15-O = 15th October, the global mobilisation that originated in Spain. 22-M = 22nd May, the day of the Spanish municipal elections this year, which provided much of the backdrop to the 15-M demonstrations. 20N = 20th November, the date of the upcoming Spanish general elections.)
Who benefits from the 15-M movement
The liberal-authoritarian conception of democratic politics makes us accustomed to interpret participation as a fleeting, periodic act, as if it were a matter of performing a favour. And so it is that participation in the res publica is limited, for an immense majority, to the vote every four years; that is, of course, if one votes.
Any other way of addressing common affairs is quickly accused of moving outside legal boundaries; of even being the germ for coups d’etat, as Esperanza Aguirre claimed about the 15-M. Fortunately, little by little, people are overcoming this constrictive conception of politics in which the only ones who can take part, beyond the plebiscitary consultations that we know as “elections”, are markets, politicians and communications media. The 15-O [the day of mobilisation of the “indignados”] has brought a liberation of that plural subjectivity, the multitude, which is defined by its irreducibility to a sole reading of its being; to a particular approach that admits representation and which, as such, cannot be easily put back in its place by the regime in power.
Everyone expected that with the 15-M there would be a sort of street mimesis, which historically has tended to play out with political struggles that end up incorporating the institutions of the regime: first a temporary uproar would give way to the structuring of the social body of the protest in some mass organisational mode (a party, a union, an NGO, or other). Thanks to this organisation it would be possible, in turn, to set about elminating the plurality of the social body (in the way that German constitutionalists of the 19th Century called reductio ad unum). Finally, the co-opting of a few leaders would be a bearable economic cost, and in consequence the protest would get diluted with the briefest of nods and with the incorporation of the symbolic apparatus generated by the mobilisation (in the way that, for example, everyone today identifies with the symbols of feminism, pacifism, etc.).
What the 15-M is about, however, is another way of practising politics, another logic that belongs to another agency; an agency completely removed from the forms with which mass organisations (parties, unions, etc) function. The 15-M means, primarily, a transformation with regard to the set of assumptions that until now have governed life, and it calls into question the liberal definition of democracy. In a time when this variant of democracy is entering a deep crisis, now that it has been verified that sovereignty no longer resides with votes but with markets and ratings agencies, contestation is not limited to a mimesis of organisational logics that have guided well-known historical processes (the sequence of emergence, organisation, elitisation, co-optation and dissolution of the movement). With the lessons of the past learned, today things go further, a progressive democracy is demanded, more in keeping with the material constitution of contemporary reality.
What the ‘indignados’ practise can be defined as movement politics and, as distinct from the politics of personality and party that in recent decades have de-democratised liberal democracies (demonstrating the democratic limitations of these entities), it is a political agency. An agency of democratisation that has no fear in breaking the present state of things through civil disobedience in order to propel itself beyond this state, towards a constituent horizon that brings forth the government of absolute democracy. The 15-M, the 15-O, the moments of rupture that will no doubt continue, are not mere mass demonstrations in the streets; they are not the first step in the aforementioned sequence. There will be no emergence, organisation, elitisation, co-optation and dissolution of the movement. It is in vain that left organisations try, opportunistically, to pick up “political capital”.
In the 15-M there is no political capital: there is a common. This is why the relationship of the 15-M with 22-M or that of 15-O and other evental moments of rupture to come with 20-N cannot be determined within the parameters of cause and effect. If we want to understand the relation between the movement and the elections of the representative government, we should adopt a different perspective that takes account beforehand the deep crisis in which the latter are mired, so as to be able to understand how the movement operates.
And the case is, as shown by the 15M from 23M onward, and as the 15O will surely show after the 20N, the elections are contingent on the movement and not vice-versa. To put forward a reading of the results of 20N as a failure of the mobilisation of the left and a resounding triumph for the right is only something that acquires meaning within the interpretative frame of political grammar in which liberal democracy inscribes itself. This same democracy whose principal institutional mechanism (representative government) the citizens (the supposed sovereign, remember?) say no longer works (“they don’t represent us”) and that must be abolished (“we are going to replace this system”).
As happened with 22M, people looking forward to 20N wish to present collective action as a miscalculation, as the impossibility of achieving the only thing that one can achieve: to influence the electoral result. This is the first stage of every self-fulfilling prophecy, that is, of that mechanism that presents us a ‘false’ definition of the situation (the victory of the PP as the only perspective) that triggers a new behaviour (electoral behaviour).
This ensures that the false original conception of the situation becomes the ‘true’ one (that the eventual victory of the PP should be lived as the confirmation that going out onto the street was worth nothing since only the electoral stage ever existed). This is how media manipulation operates. But this is not new to the movement and this is why the representative trick of the self-fulfilling prophecy will not get very far. And what is more, after the 20N the crisis of the regime will be even greater and the horizon of the movement will remain open.