Opportunity structures knock?

From Evernote:

Opportunity structures knock?

What follows further down, should you wish to skip my usual long preamble, is the translation of an article originally published in Diagonal on the 28th of December. It is by Raimundo Viejo Viñas, whose work I have translated before. It addresses head on the question of what role should be played by the 15-M movement in the aftermath of elections that delivered an absolute parliamentary majority to the Partido Popular.

I have spent the last few months in a country (Ireland) even more subordinated to the dictates of financial institutions, but one which has not had any major moment of refusal of representation, as seen in both Spain and Greece. In this vein, it has been interesting to watch how the campaign against the household tax has unfolded in the media: it has been largely treated as a scheme cooked up by left-wing (this point is always emphasised, as ever in absence of any reflection on the corollary) TDs. 


There is an attempt afoot in media to mobilise general cynicism toward parliamentarians in order to dissipate popular resistance. Thus the Irish Times’s political correspondent refers to the campaign as the handiwork of ‘Joe Higgins and his allies’, and its leader column observes that ‘a number of left-wing and Independent Dáil TDs seem to regard it as a ticket for their re-election‘, thus casting the campaign as yet an irrelevant struggle for self-aggrandisement, and, more generally, insisting on the notion that politics is an activity confined to parliamentary chambers and cabinet meetings, sanctified by a moment’s public intervention every four years or so.


It is important to keep this conception of politics -that it is what is performed by professional politicians- foremost in people’s minds. This is illustrated by a recent piece by Terry Prone, propaganda adviser to the main political parties, when commenting on Occupy encampments:

Nobody asks them how these pious aspirations mesh with the achievements or lack of achievements in their past- as would happen if the protesters had taken the real risk of putting themselves up for election.

We can see, then, that politics is presented as analogous to certain forms of priesthood and religious authority, rather than the activity of any citizen (in the broadest possible sense of the world): according to Irish politico-media orthodoxy, it is all very well to have a point of view, but unless it has been validated a priori by the appropriate bodies, it counts for very little indeed. And this orthodox framework has a profound effect on political activity in Ireland since it entrenches the notion that politics hinges on representation, otherwise c’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la politique.

The corrosive effects of this situation are, as might be expected, seldom probed in media outlets that perpetuate the situation in the first instance. So the Irish Times sees nothing wrong with calling its political correspondent column Inside Politics, thereby characterising politics as an exclusive sphere to which only authoritative sources have access, and in relation to which the public is very much on the Outside.

I could go on, and I shall for a moment: ever noticed how parliamentary representatives (who claim to be your representative even if you didn’t vote for them) operate ‘clinics’ and ‘surgeries’, as though a constituent would have to have something wrong with them, some sort of illness or affliction, to encroach on the domain of the Inside?

Anyway, I mention all this because I think that although Ireland requires a moment of refusal of representation along the lines of what has happened in other places, that moment is far off, and the domination enabled by what passes for representative democracy in Ireland will, unless met with strident challenge, only compound the implosion currently wracking Irish society. However, whilst inclined to optimism, I think the prospects for this, at the moment, are bleak still. You would think the payment of €1.2bn of public money to Anglo Irish Bank bondholders when all manner of vital public services are being cut would be a sufficiently obvious indication that democracy in Ireland is in crisis, but perhaps to do so underestimates the power of Irish media in fostering cynicism, disengagement and, ultimately, desperation and impotence.


It is striking to me, then, that Raimundo Viejo, in the article below, treats the moment of refusing representation as largely passed for the 15-M movement in the Spanish State: for him, there is no need to dwell on the breakdown of representative democracy any longer, what must be done now is to build institutions that serve the movement in the establishment of a ‘political regime of the commons’.

20N-1. The value of opportunities

When explaining cycles of mobilisations, social sciences resort -among other things- to a focus that they call the political opportunity structure. According to its premises, the cycles refer to a rupture in the internal equilibria of political regimes -"opportunities"-. If a regime is unitary in its positions, it is said, the social body upon which it articulates itself will not be prone to mobilisation.


This is an old lesson Machiavelli in his day warned Lorenzo de Medici about: the social body -for the Florentine, the people- is irreducible to the leadership; if the leader aspires to govern he must always consider the perspective imposed on him from below, from that 99% always prone to insurgency. The underlying premise is that every power regime over a social body is a regime of domination: when the unit as a whole is ineffective -as with during the attempts at emptying the squares- the regime enters crisis and mobilisation becomes possible.

We should not be surprised then, that after 15M the leadership should bring forward elections that have not only favoured a change of Government, but have also delivered it to the new executive in the best conditions for governability: absolute majority. If we add to this the sinking of the PSOE and, therefore, its internal weakness and subsequent bowing to the consensuses of State, we can already imagine the rest.

But what is the real value of the PSOE/PP alternating? At another juncture the PP’s absolute majority would have been a total success. However, there is little or no reminder in the 20N of its most obvious precedent: the socialist victory of 1982. No atmosphere of collective euphoria, nor promises from a newly installed regime, nor the democratic conspiracy against the feared powers that be..

What is it then that has changed? Undoubtedly, the state of opinion, the democratic standing of the regime’s institutions and a load more variables have changed. But what has changed above all, is something much more decisive for the definition of opportunities: the mutation of leadership due to the change in the structure of sovereignty.

The former sovereign power -the national State- was sufficient to manage a country’s economy. At its centre the public policies were decided that would allow, in the frame of an international context governed by relations between States, the organisation of society as a whole. In recent decades this has changed irreversibly.

The success of the implementation of neoliberalism has brought the national State to its limit, subtracting its decision-making power, its sovereignty in the modern sense of the word. Today we find ourselves with the effects of the double displacement enacted, on the one hand, outward, from the State to the market, and, on the other, upward, from the State to superstate institutions.


The European Union, within the framework of federalising agreements between States, was some years ago unable to get beyond the impact of its neoliberalism via a constituent process -the referendum on the Treaty to establish a Constitution for Europe- and the eurocratic dinosaur imploded. The neoliberal utopia of reduction of government to the minimum, the privatisation of public assets and the execution of exclusive command by the markets thereby takes another step forward by the hand of the Governments of the European right.

The implications of all these changed are of the greatest importance for the configuration of opportunity and the future of the movement. Leadership is no longer configured solely or principally at state level, and, at times, it does not even have the capacity to choose its own governing elites, -thus, Greece and Italy-. But what is more, it is not solely configured in the superstatal institutional arenas of global governance.

Politics of antagonism

Here the scenario had also changed with respect to the alter-globalisation wave. Today it is the automatisms of financial capitalism, its ratings agencies, its technocracy, where the frame for decision making is prefigured, where leadership is organised and joined, in obedience, by the national State. Here is where, in fact, the opportunity structure is shaped and where, as such, influence must be exerted in order for the movement to advance.

Having arrived at this point, politics can abandon the terrain of the current regime and move to another arena: that of constituent power, i.e. that of antagonism between a leadership at the service of the markets and the social body that produces wealth. In the calculations of the former, the future is entrusted to the absence of a parliamentary opposition able to question its power. The leadership assumes that the constitutional framework, renovated for the purpose, will be enough to manage the crisis in line with the well-known shock doctrine. From this perspective, autonomy is no longer the option of a radical sector and becomes an imperative for those who have occupied squares since 15-M. Whoever until now could live in the belief -institutionally induced- that it was possible to practise a different politics within the regime, will end up either awaking in the desert of the real of facile leftism, or even resigning oneself to sad passions and returning to the mantra that demonstrating achieves nothing.


Affordable luxury

For whoever has the material means to cope in the crisis, the latter can even be an affordable luxury. The parliamentary and union lefts entrust their strategies to this. The first because in its profound autism has not understood the 15M and it confuses a few seats in the parliament as an endorsement of its work. The second because it only counts on mobilising the street under its hegemony in the medium term while waiting for the return to power of a sympathetic government. Both organise their strategies amid the impotence of their historic defeat, trusting in what remains of the welfarist shipwreck.

For whoever does not possess these means, however, a diametrically different double horizon unfolds: on one hand, the risk of internalising the crisis in a self-destructive fashion – depression, suicides, etc-; on the other, throwing oneself into the movement in search of cooperation, solidarity, symbiosis. Paraphrasing the apothem of the Italian ’77: "The expressive phase has ended, we have won". 


From here the movement must formulate itself, beyond the destituent moment – "they don’t represent us" – into the establishment of a political regime of the commons. To this end it is not only necessary to get deep into the production of institutions of the movement -collectives, counter-information media, cooperatives, etc.- but equally to move forward in its articulation within a power regime that is alternative to the existing one. Any other thing will bring us to more of the same, and close the opportunity structure opened by the 15M.


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