This is a translation of an article by Santiago Alba Rico. It appeared in the most recent edition of Papeles de Relaciones Ecosociales y Cambio Global, and was posted on news aggregator site Rebelión.
The capitalist crisis and the desire for democracy
On November 1st 2011 the newspapers published two news items that were intimately related. In one, the Greek Prime Minister Georgios Papandreou was calling his citizens to a referendum over the public debt and the bailout measures decided by the European Union. In another, there was the announcement of the vertiginous rise in risk premiums in Spain and Italy and a general plunge on the European stock markets. The relation between these two news items did not require a penetrating analysis nor did they require a particularly perceptive acuity; all the newspapers with frightening naturalness broadcast the adverse reaction of the markets to this exercise of sovereignty and democracy in Greece (“Greek referendum unleashes panic on the stock exchange”, “the European economy trembles at the Greek referendum”, said the paper’s headlines. The politicians also showed their discomfort at a decision they considered harmful to economic recovery.
Thus Rainer Bruederle, adviser to Angela Merkel, showed no hesitation in condemning it as a lack of responsibility and seriousness on the part of the Greek government: “it irritated me”, Bruederle confessed to a German radio station, “it is a strange way to act. The Prime Minister Georgios Papandreu agreed that the bailout package was beneficial for his country.” The presidents of the European Commission and the European Council immediately urged Papandreu to “honour his commitments”; Finland threatened to cut off its assistance and the Spanish minister José Blanco indicated that “it was not a good decision for Europe”. In fact, the European Union immediately froze the supply of funds to Greece as punishment for its indiscipline and it warned of the consequences of its audacity, mentioning the possibility of an expulsion from the organisation. Just 24 hours later, the Greek Prime Minister, abandoned by his own ministers, gave way and withdrew the referendum proposal.
What could have happened in Europe so that a popular consultation, a privileged instrument of democratic sovereignty, should become a danger, a threat, an act of irresponsibility, an aggression, the foreshadowing of a catastrophe?
A month before, at the end of September [actually, the 6th September – R], UBS, the biggest Swiss bank, published a 21 page report by economists Stephane Deo, Paul Donovan and Larry Hatheway. In it they warned that the recession was going to give way to a depression, and in a tone that was half descriptive half threatening, insinuated the need for ‘muscular’ governments, less democratic and more ‘authoritarian’ to set the situation straight, or risk driving the EU into a ‘balkanisation’ or a ‘civil war’. The foreseeable social disorders that the economic crisis was going to generate, following the model in August, may require changes of Government, even dictatorial or ‘military’ Governments capable of containing and repressing the unrest. The Swiss bank’s report could be interpreted without doubt as a blackmail intended to strengthen bank bailouts, without which –we are told- one could only await a future of instability, agitations and autocracy that would put an end to the “European dream”, but which reflected also, in a naked fashion, this growing intolerance by the so-called markets –a supranational and uncontrollable constituent power- of democratic institutions. This need for “repression” of the human obstacles that might put themselves in the way of the true “sovereign power”, has already crystallised, in fact, in the creation of an “anti-mutiny” Europea police force, Eurogendfor, made up of 3,000 men and with headquarters in Italy, one of whose patrols would have been sent over to Greece to coincide precisely with the calling of the referendum.
After the second world war and until 1990, faced with a Soviet Union that simultaneously functioned as a threat and a counterpoint, Western propaganda successfully managed –albeit at the expense of other peoples and other regions- to fuse into a single piece, as if nature itself had decreed it, a material development unprecedented in the history of humanity with a juridical and institutional framework compatible with the popular democratic conquests of the last 200 years. Democracy, Rule of Law and Market seemed to have fused together into the same mould. This was not true.
Already in 1944, in a classic book that makes for recommended reading now more than ever, The Great Transformation, the Hungarian Karl Polanyi had related fascism with the autonomy of a market abandoned to its autistic dynamics beyond societies and political intervention. Polanyi could see very well this contradiction, clear once more today, between democracy and law on the one hand and “freedom”, conceived precisely as the unlimited expression of economic impulses: ‘‘the freedom to exploit ones fellows, or the freedom to make inordinate gains without commensurable service to the community, the freedom to keep technological inventions from being used for public benefit or the freedom to profit from public calamities secretly engineered for private advantage’. This kind of freedom, radically opposed to social reproduction in the context of an inter-war crisis, had led inevitably to dictatorship and war.
Two decades after the defeat of the USSR in the cold war, the illusion is quickly collapsing and Polanyi’s analysis acquires a sudden relevance in the conscience and the experience of citizens: it is Goldman Sachs, not the polling booths, that decides the degree of freedom, the quality of life, longevity and dignity of human beings.
Politics, as the Hungarian author warned, has been completely taken hostage by economics, before which parliaments, institutions, culture, knowledge, and even love, now bow. Capitalism, apart from a set of impersonal economic relations, also requires an apparatus of management, which deems it equally necessary to have, depending on the time and the place, the most bloodthirsty gunmen and the most refined philosophers (as shown by Frances Stonor Saunders in her exhaustive study of the “cultural cold war”). What characterises this management apparatus is precisely its lack of scruples: during the last sixty years it has alternately or simultaneously used (depending on geo-strategic criteria in an unequal economic space) colonialism, fascism, dictatorships, weak dictatorships, weak dictatorships, the welfare State, democratic institutions, financial institutions, and trade agreements and even religious fundamentalism (such as in Afghanistan or in the Balkans). This management apparatus is very versatile and it does not prefer fascism. But it has at any rate two limits imposed by the very economic structure it tries to manage. The first teaches that not even in its periods of growth can capitalism generalise democracy as a process of management (limited in the best case scenario to an insignificant region of the planet). The second reveals that in the worst of cases, in periods of crisis or recession, democracy is the only process of management truly incompatible with capitalism. All appears to indicate that politicians and economic actors (the funnel of the 1% that swallows up the wealth) have assumed already that the worst case scenario has arrived and that the reproduction of mechanisms for capitalist accumulation is incompatible everywhere, and in Europe two, with the Welfare State and the Rule of Law. As Marx said 150 years ago, it is often ‘the bayonets that must put the natural law of supply and demand onto the right track’.
And the citizens? Apart from in Latin America, where the democratisation of the last decade, under the impulse of popular projects and social movements had led to a rise in democratic consciousness and, against it, an increase in imperialist pressures, the rest of the world seemed either petrified in its defeat, or in downright regression. The passing and application after 11th September of antiterrorist laws that violated or suspended civiland political rights that were apparently well established, along with the aggressive economic offensive against social and labour guarantees, opened the way in Europe to resigned conviction that, in effect, the capitalist counterrevolution entailed taking on neopopulist or neofascist solutions, accepted or even applauded by a population bribed with merchandise, frightened by immigration and formatted by mass media.
In this context of unprecedented democratic regressions, mistimed, 200 years behind, the Arab world went out into the street to demand democracy.
Extemporaneous and eccentric democracy
At the end of 2010 something happened, in effect, that was unexpected and where least it was expected. A tragic but minor incident, already mythological, in the Tunisian interior. Sidi Bouzid, unleashed the ‘thaw’ of the only region of the world that had been deliberately kept fossilised since the second world war (perhaps, further back, since the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire). Mohamed Bouazizi, a street vendor humiliated by the police, set fire to himself in front of the city’s governor’s office and his death provoked a popular uprising that toppled the dictator Ben Ali and immediately shaking the region. Oil-producing theocracies, pseudo-parliamentary monarchies or false republics, from Mauritania to Bahrain, all arabs without exception lived, and live still, under severe dictatorships controlled by omnipotent police apparatuses in the service of mafia-style oligarchies that are subordinate and function in the interests of international capitalism.
The general situation had been outlined already in April 2005 in the report commissioned by the United Nations Development Program by a group of Arab intellectuals: “in line with standards of the 21st century, the arab countries have not resolved the aspirations for development of the Arab people, safety and liberation, despite the diversities between one country and another in this regard. In fact, there is a near complete consensus with regard to the existence of grave shortcomings in the Arab world, and the conviction that these are situated specifically in the political sphere”. Corruption, mafia-style clientelism, partiality in the justice system, exceptional tribunals, violence against ‘civil society’, economic inequality, the report also included a denunciation of the occupation of Palestine and Iraq as decisive obstacles for the democratisation of the zone.
“Having dismantled the old State, the US authorities at the helm have given made little progress when building a new one”. It was a courteous form of alluding to the great effort –in the opposite direction- that the US and the EU have made in this part of the world to prevent democracy. After the attacks of September 11th and the invasion of Iraq, the Bush administration had understood the need to make certain concessions that would give their friendly regimes a makeover without questioning their power or –like the bombers like to say- their “stability”.
Constitutional reforms in Tunisia and Egypt, family elections in Saudi Arabia and the pompous and perverse polls in Iraq, together with the mass demonstrations in Beirut, led some propagandists to speak in 2005 of an “Arab spring”. Nothing could have been further from the truth. The report of the UNDP corrected this dreamy vision to speak harshly of ‘a black hole’ and ‘an imminent catastrophe’ related to a ‘social explosion’ that could, according to its predictions, produce ‘a civil war’.
When the ‘social explosion’ finally happened, which is still effervescent today, it did so, however, under a disconcerting format. The enclosure of political space, traditionally and historically separate from the social universe, seemed to determine that the scarcely likely step of the former into the latter could only be violent; and yet, however, apart from in the case of Libya, the protests and demonstrations that swept and sweep the Arab world, from Tunisia to Yemen, from Egypt to Bahrain, from Morocco to Syria, were and continue to be stubbornly peaceful. The instrumentalisation of religion in its Wahhabite strain after the US-Saudi pact of 1945 – a reactionary battering ram against the threat of a progressivist decolonisation that had been on the verge of becoming a reality, gave rise to fears, elsewhere, that the “explosion” might take on salafist demands, that it might be done in the name of God and in the imposition of sharia, and yet the Arab revolutions, whist largely carried out by Muslims, have only demanded “democracy” and “dignity”. Nothing of this was in the plans –nor, in most cases was it in the desire- of the forces operating in the region: the EU, the US, Israel, the Islamists and the Arab left, all of which have been dragged in the wake of the popular mobilisation.
There has been, if one can say it in this way, a sort of political, and not religious, “alienation”, under which the term “democracy” has condensed and served as a conduit for very broad range of long-standing dissatisfactions and grievances. Unemployment, corruption, repression, humiliation, and wretched living have been measured in a certain way by the broken promises of the West, whose word has been taken with a seriousness that is in itself subversive. At the moment when its practice is in greatest retreat in Europe and the United States, when it can be least permitted in the developed capitalist centres, a furious desire for democracy, an uncontainable democratising impulse has toppled three tyrants and threatens at least two more in a zone of the world – the north of Africa and the Near East – where for the last 70 years a large part of the geopolitical, energy and self-interested attention of the great powers has been concentrated, which, precisely for that, had until now prevented through all means that the most elementary citizen freedoms and freedoms be exercise. It does not matter if these revolutions are not left wing or if they will be more or less held captive or managed from outside, as one might fear: what is true is that in no other place in the world does the very notion of democracy result more intolerable and dangerous for all the actors on the terrain. The vote of the Tunisians the past 23rd October is the expression of a remarkable national and regional victory and it obliges moreover a change in the rules of the game of Western intervention in the entire region.
The potency of the politically correct
The revolutionary potential of democratic naivety is also showing all its delegitimizing power in Europe. The 15 M movement, a seismic replica of the Arab spring that must be inscribed in the same tectonic fault of the capitalist crisis, reveals the globalisation of responses to the global nature of the aggression. There is something very interesting and very pretty –and potentially transformative- in this mobilisation of all the commonplaces and clichés, launched now against those who for years have named them without believing in them. The 15 M is, yes, a politically correct movement. And this, which can be a limit in the struggles to come, is for starters, a vigorous vaccination against the neopopulist authoritarianisms that were being presented as the only alternative to the crisis of credibility in Europe. The response is as surprising as that of the Arab world: when the Spanish population seemed definitively formatted by the “hedonism of masses” and doomed to neofascist faith-based adherences (as a “natural” response to the crisis) the “indignados” launch themselves into the street not to ask for a strong leadership or “nationalist” measures against immigration, but in name of all the “conventions” repeated in propaganda and betrayed by politicians: active solidarity that leads to preventing evictions, belligerent anti-racism that prevents the arrest of immigrants, inclusive tolerance exercised in all the squares, participative democracy in assemblies at times exhausting and useless, but whose very self-referential character has, by contrast, a powerful revelatory effect: it radically de-authorises and discredits the system in power. “They call it democracy and it is not” and “they do not represent us” are the two slogans which summarise awareness of a nitham, as in the Arab world, that is contrary to individual and collective self-determination, and which invoke the demand for a “true democracy” that still has to be filled with content.
In the Arab world repression and religion were fuelled; in Europe the nihilism of consumption and of the mass media. No society in history has exalted youth so much as a mercantile value and none has shown so much contempt for it as a real force of change: whilst advertisements offered time and time again the immutable image of a desire always in bloom, eternally young, the young Spanish, like the Tunisians, suffered unemployment, precarious work, professional disqualification, material exclusion from adult life, and, as soon as the socially accepted norms of petty-bourgeois consumption were taken away, police persecution. In the Arab world, so that they refrained from demanding a decent existence, young people were beaten and put in prison; in Europe, so that they refrain from demanding a decent existence, they are offered junk food, junk television, the junk time of supermarkets and theme park. In Tunisia, young people excluded from their own territory were held down by truncheon bblows; in Spain, the young people who cannot buy their own home or sell their labour skills, can acquire cheap technology, cheap clothes, cheap pizzas. Kept well away from centres of decision making, held in contempt or overexploited in the labour market, molded by homogeneous consumption habits, the youth has ended up becoming (in Europe and in the Arab world) a transmediterranean “social class” which, by its own material characteristics, recognises no age limits. As the Arab revolutions have shown, as the indignados of Europe and the US sho, there are millions of fortysomethings and even old people who are denied access to the age of majority via mechanisms that are at once political and economic.
But we had been wrong: if one cannot repress a human being indefinitely, she cannot be bribed eternally either; if real blows do not work, neither do false caresses. Blows or bubblegum, these young people of all ages do not accept being treated as children; they neither allow themselves to be threatened (“no fear” they shout here and there) or bought (“we are not commodities”). The Puerta del Sol in Madrid also showed the great “cultural” failure of capitalism, which has sought to keep European populations in a permanent age of minority simply by fuelling hunger: for sweets, for images, for pure intensities. Frightened or corrupted, children cannot be allowed to vote without there being a danger that their vote bore some real relation to democracy. And thus, in Tunisia and Madrid, in Egypt and New York, in Yemen and in Athens, young people call precisely for democracy; and thus, in Tunisia and in Madrid, in Egypt and in New York, in Yemen and in Athens, they have understood accurately that democracy is organically linked to that mysterious thing that Kant situated sharply away from the markets: dignity.
Dignity, indeed, has to do with access to majority of age. Only children do not take decisions and it is for the young to rebel, not against adults but against childhood. When one is a child, one is enclosed in one’s own body, fed from outside, maintained –let’s say- alive but bereft of any instrument for appropriation of one’s own territory. This is why, in order to sketch clearly this new class community transversal of countries, two shared characteristics have defined, here and there, the struggle for dignity and democracy. One is that new technologies, vectors of the capitalist desiring imaginary, integrators into an unequally accessible market, had structured a new global order parallel to that of media prestiges; an anonymous order through which the impersonal flow of the worst impulses circulated speedily and sweetly, but which also held a potential change in the perception of the other. This order that did not demand democracy but exaltation; it did not demand a better society but pure exchange, but displaced to the outside, inscribed in the plaza, it has paradoxically re-established a very old world, anthropologically and politically almost Greek, of respect and trust only in those who were unknown.
But this concept of dignity, understood as access to the age of majority, as a reappropriation of one’s own territory, demanded precisely the physical occupation of space, the return to space. This is the second characteristic shared by the transversal youth of all ages in its demand for democracy. For years, well-founded analyses drew attention to the decentralisation and evaporation of power, whether capillary or tentacular, bereft of any visible materialisation. There could be neither a Bastille nor a Winter Palace. They are right. And yet, the model inaugurated in the Casbah in Tunis and Tahrir Square in Cairo, then extended in Pearl Square and in Taghir Square, extended throught the world: Sol, Plaza de Catalunya, Syntagma, Bastille, Wall Street, etc.
Undoubtedly these are all symbolically saturated places, but the acampadas have less to do with the fact of pointing the finger at a building or a ministry (which also happens) than with the need to affirm the very power of remaining in a public space. Capitalist power has no centre, but it occupies all spaces and this is why the physical presence of bodies alongside one another in a common enclosure is already a living exercise in democracy. To remain in the space is highly vigorous and subversive response, to this decentralisation of power: now the centre is us, the place we all occupy together, the square in which we leave our traces and our speeches. The impulse of writing and drawing –all that graffiti on the walls- is a contestation to advertising, which invades walls with its aggressive private interests; the assembly, for its part, is an inverted replica of a television studio, with its planned venting and false laughter. As in the case of new technologies, the paradox of this evaporated power is in the fact that, when confronted with it, the indignados reintroduce a classical effect, which is also Greek: the transformation of space into human space, an agora for the exchange of arguments, an academy for learning the laws of this world.
This order of perception and of contestation, with its classical effects, arises in any instance from the inside capitalism –as if subjectivity itself, and not that which confronts productive forces and the mode of production, were its intimate contradiction- and does not fit into any of the organisational moulds that had been traditionally built against it. Both the concrete history of real politics and the gnoseological format of the new technological youth catch traditional parties offside, without, in return, the outrage being capable of forging new instruments and new frames of transitive intervention, beyond self-affirmation and negation through contrast. Democracy, in a manner of speaking, is parallel to power. That is not enough. Democracy must be in power.
By way of conclusion.
Twenty years after the defeat of the USSR in the Cold War, the capitalist counterrevolution we call ‘crisis’ has stripped naked the incompatibility not only between Market and Welfare State but also, more radically, between Market and Democracy. In this sense, the economic , legislative and police offensive after 9/11, aimed at ensuring the expanded reproduction of profits at the cost of the majority of the population and the very survival of the planet, has turned the naïve call for democracy, in the Arab world and in the rest of the world, into a structural obstacle, and as such, on the other side, into a motor of transformations. The enemy of the managers of the world economy is no longer socialism but democracy itself; and this is why it is the demand for democracy, by jarring with the material base of capitalism in crisis, that must lead necessarily to the conception of another model (that is, to “socialism”). But we will not be able to reach it without the articulation of new organisational models which, raised to the formats that cause mercantile desire to circulate, situate that imaginary against its reasonable limits: those of the earth itself and its resources.