Monthly Archives: April 2012

La República

This is a translation of a post by John Brown on the subject of the Spanish republic, from a couple of weeks back.

14th April: Gora Errepublika! Visca la República! Viva a República! Viva la República!

Perhaps the greatest damage done to Spanish republicanism has been the confusion of the Republic with a form of State. Initially, the term republic (res publica) alluded directly to that which is common to all citizens, to that which belongs to everyone and upon which particular rights can be established, including that of private property (proclaimed in Rome, not as an attribute of the individual but rather “ex jure Quiritum”, in keeping with the common right of citizens). Republic means the primacy of what is common over property: for this very reason, the republic is the rule of the free multitude, not of kings or rich people, not of sovereigns or owners of property. There have been and there are, however, republics with a monarchical core: these are the ones constituted based on property whose ultimate aim is the preservation of property and not the safeguarding of the commons. These nominal republics have a statist character, since they were configured as a combination of apparatuses of domination and representation and not as a free space of political intervention for the motley multitude of the citizens. They are, as monarchies are, a type of rule that aspires to transcendence over society.

A republic is, however, something else, a mode of rule that is fused with democracy and as such does not aspire to represent/take the place of the multitude. The multitude is unrepresentable and only in this paradoxical sense is it ‘sovereign’. The combined holders of property, on the other hand, have access to representation; or to put it another way, property holders –separated among themselves on account of their private property- only exist as a grouping in so far as they are represented. The sovereign represents the property holders and submits them to a closed regime of legality that permits freedom of the market and freedom in the market and excludes any political freedom, any exercise of constituent power. The republics of the owners of property –essentially absolutist regimes that can also have a monarchical form- give the name of rule of law to the prohibition of constituent power. It is for this reason they see to it with totalitarian zeal to criminalise any attempt at substantial change of the legal order and any actions beyond the law that is not that of the sovereign itself. This is what we are seeing today in this republic of the property holders led by a monarch that is the Kingdom of Spain, when attempts are made to treat peaceful resistence to authority as criminal violence or to repress any dissent with regard to the capitalist order recognised by the laws and the constitution.


A true republic recognises dissent in its essence, because it is not based, nor can it be based, in any consensual illusion: the republic is the regime of the multitude, the rule of the common. The multitude in itself can only be plural: hence the classical figures of radical republicanism such as Machiavelli or Spinoza always claimed that freedom was not based in the excellence of legislation, but in the correlation of forces between sovereign and multitude and among the different sectors of the multitude. The republic can never forget its foundation, which is the constituent power of the multitude. A republican regime can never be –as the republics of the owners of property intend- the incarnation of the rule of Law beyond which there is only crime, illegitimate violence and terrorism, but is rather a system where the law is flexible and always admits margins for reality, margins for anomaly, for dissent and for disobedience which cannot be regulated and with which every power must negotiate.


The Spanish Republic of 1931 never became a republic of the property holders, above all because the main representatives of the owning classes never wanted it. The Republic was brought about by the popular classes who occupied the Puerta del Sol 80 years before the 15M and threw out a corrupt monarchy that tried to survive in its final years through a dictatorial regime. The popular classes were those who in 34 and 36 saved the Republic against the subversive efforts of the owners of property and, for three years, prevented Franco’s victory. Today, the Republic has to become once again a frame of freedom and democracy, but at the same time a regime of the multitude and the rule of the common. The Republic of the multitude is not a form of State but the very form of self-determination of the multitude as an open and unrepresentable community. To lay claim to the Republic in the Spanish State is to drive a constituent process that opens new possibilities for organisation and relations for the ensemble of individuals and peoples that are today included in this State that Gil De Biedma said was dominated by “every demon”. This is what has allowed today, the 14th April 2012, in various town councils in Euskal Herria and, particularly, in that of Donostia, for the tricolour to be flown, and for a considerable segment of the 15M movement to participate in the demonstrations in favour of the Republic because they consider these the ideal frame for the tough battle for the defence of freedoms that is approaching.


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The Long Thermidor

This is the first part of a translation of an interview with Gerardo Pisarello which originally appeared on the Sin Permiso website. There will be several more parts to follow. Pisarello is a professor of Constitutional Law at the University of Barcelona and author of ‘A long Thermidor. The attack of antidemocratic constitutionalism’, which is the topic of this interview.

It’s from a couple of months back but I thought it particularly appropriate given the upcoming treaty referendum in Ireland, in which voters are told to vote for elite control over their public finances, with  all the dismantling of rights and entitlements that such an arrangement would entail, or face utter devastation.

Allow me to ask you about the title of the book: what ‘long Thermidor’ are you talking about?

The expression refers to the French revolution. In the republican calendar, Thermidor was the month of the coup d’etat against the vigorous democratic movement that succeeded the fall of the monarchy. This coup was carried out to protect the large estates and the politicial and economic elites associated witih them. What the title of the book seeks to highlight is the similarity between that process and other subsequent antidemocratic reactions, beginning with the one that has led to the consolidation of neoliberalism, and in general, the present financialised capitalism.

The subtitle reads: “The attack of antidemocratic constitutionalism”. What constitutionalism is that? Is this term not an oxymoron?

Constitutionalism is an instrument for organising power. To think that this necessarily entails the service of democracy is a mistake. The ancients, Aristotle above all, understood that the material constitution of a society could be democratic or antidemocratic. This tension runs through modern constitutionalism. The American version, for example, was born in large part as a device for holding back the democratising pressures generated by the independence movement. In Europe, the Thermidorian constitutionalism first, and the liberal one after that, also served to preserve the large estates and hold back the demands of popular majorities. And in that liberal antidemocratic tradition we would also have to situate the constitutionalism driven by the Washington Consensus in the 90s. Or the one that is today driven forward by the European Union, in open contradiction of the most important guarantees of the state constitutions.

As if it could be no other way, a central category, real democracy, appears repeatedly in your essay. What do you understand by real democracy? What contradiction does it entail?

I really use the concept of democracy, on its own, in the manner of the historian Arthur Rosenberg. Not as a finished, static regime, but as a movement in favour of political and economic self-government. This idea of democracy has little to do with the dominant liberal conceptions that try to pare it down, at best, to a mere mechanism for selecting elites. But it sits quite well, on the other hand, with the antique, classic notion of democracy, as an egalitarian movement that widens the inclusion of those in the demos. And with the present demands of the indignados as regards real distribution of power, not only in institutions, but also in the market.

Your book comprises an introduction and six chapters. Let’s start with the introduction; you begin it with a homage to Marx and Engels: “A wave of protests is haunting Europe”. What importance do these protests have? What are they protesting against, in your opinion?

These protests, preceded by those of the ‘Arab spring’, can be seen as part of a wave of popular anti-oligarchic revolts. As revolts directed at a shameless variation of rentier capitalism that precaritises, excludes and seems prepared to liquidate any democratic obstacle that gets in its way. Some voices have compared them to the protests that shook the order of the Restoration and that of liberal capitalism in 1830 and 1848. The latter is the year of the ‘spring of the peoples’ and, as you point out yourself, of the Manifesto of Marx and Engels. These are protests that bring together a plurality of classes and actors who do not belong to the plutocracy around an incisive programme of political and social democratisation. In the European or US case we are, undoubtedly, faced with embryonic revolts, with a still very limited impact. However, as the crisis deepens, it is most likely that they will grow and give way to new forms of antagonism and collective action. Meanwhile, they are the only hope of an exit from the neoliberal Thermidor.

You speak of an oligarchic assault on democracy. What do they seek to do with this assault which, in your opinion, is not a new phenomenon? Liquidate citizen freedoms? Wipe out worker conquests?

The financialised capitalism that we are faced with can be considered, in effect, an oligarchic assault on democracy. This entails a deep reconfiguration of the power relations that lead to its political and economic concentration. For the moment at least, the objective does not appear to be the straightforward elimination of public freedoms and social rights, but their greatest possible reduction. It would be a question, then, of maintaining mixed regimes in which oligarchic and democratic elements live side by side, but in which the latter occupy a marginal role. It would be a degraded variation on what the ancients, once again, called isonomic oligarchies. Regimes controlled by minorities that tolerate the existence of certain freedoms, as long as these do not call their rule into question.

You rely on Benjamin and you speak of brushing history against the grain. What does that move consist of? How does one brush against the grain?

In my opinion it involves two things. On the one hand, break with the linear, flat visions of history, those that see in it an ascendant, almost necessary evolution, towards ever greater freedom and rationality. It is a matter of showing that history, on the contrary, as a conflictive and open stage, marked out by great tragedies and rebellions, but stripped, at any rate, of any direction fixed a priori. On the other, to brush history against the grain demands questioning history as explained from above, from the exclusive perspective of power and its products. This involves reflecting the print of the people from below. Of those oppressed for economic, sexual, ethnic reasons. Those who are victims of the relations of ruling power, but who also resist and articulate alternative forms of power.

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Papering Over The Cracks

You may have noticed, if you keep an eye on politics in Ireland, that resistance to austerity has gone up a couple of notches, most significantly in the form of the Household Tax boycott, and in the demonstrations that have accompanied this campaign. You may also have noticed, if you still bother to watch the news or read the papers, that the consequences of such a declaration of disobedience, in terms of the democratic legitimacy of the government, have been mostly ignored.


The response from the ruling parties and the regime’s media has been:

  1. to vilify those people who have gone out and protest (see Alan Shatter’s claim that protesters should ‘get a life’; the Sunday Independent’s racist smear that those involved were foreigners who had no right to participate in democratic activity);
  2. ignore the fact of popular disobedience altogether and present the non-payment as some sort of monumental administrative cock-up (a near sublime example was the publication of a piece in the Irish Times by behavioural economists concerned with incentivising payment that consigned the question of democratic legitimacy to a domain beyond the known universe);
  3. frame the disobedience as a drama that can be neatly consigned to the power contests of representative democracy: thus the people who refuse are an undifferentiated and unthinking mass, largely inspired by delinquent representatives who seek to further their career, who in turn are pilloried by the right-wing press (to repeat: all the press in Ireland is right-wing). One might cite the recent Independent profile of Richard Boyd Barrett (which insuated that protest is merely an affectation of people who cannot come to terms with their own privilege), but a more illustrative example was the Frontline feature on the Household Tax boycott, where one of the audience members who was participating in the campaign was cut off by presenter Pat Kenny, who deemed that this person’s point of view was unimportant since Joan Collins, a TD who was on the panel, could speak for the movement;
  4. ratchet up the authoritarian threats. Of note here are Leo Varadkar’s initially absurd and desperate threat to cut people’s water off should they not pay the charge, and the subsequent intimations, on the part of Phil Hogan and Enda Kenny, that water -a basic human right that the previous Irish government refused to recognise by abstaining from the UN General Assembly- would be cut off.

In a country with a press dedicated to democratic inquiry, and not one that rests largely in the hands of oligarchs who benefit handsomely from the privatisation of public infrastructure and the commodification of natural resources, one might expect some degree of critical analysis of what by any standard is a deep democratic crisis. Instead, the cracks are being systematically papered over, in the hope that the commotion will eventually die down.

The whole point of the phrase ‘papering over the cracks’ assumes that the laws of physics cannot be defied forever. But is politics best understood in terms of the laws of physics? Here I am reminded of the splendid illustration by Spanish cartoonist El Roto, which appeared recently in El País.


The image provides such rich interpretative possibilities that I feel uncomfortable applying it narrowly to this situation. But in this context it does pose some useful questions. In his address at Wall Street, Slavoj Zizek appealed to a device he often uses to illustrate the present juncture:

We all know the classic scene from cartoons: the cat reaches a precipice, but it goes on walking, ignoring the fact that there is no ground under its feet; it starts to fall only when it looks down and notices the abyss. What we are doing is just reminding those in power to look down…

El Roto’s cartoon seems to take Zizek’s image into account. But ‘those in power’ show no sign of being concerned with looking down. Nor do they show any sign of what ‘we’ are doing. And there is nothing in the drawing to suggest that the ruler -or the regime- is about to fall.

We could easily pose this in terms of a question: what is it that makes us expect that downfall will naturally come about once what sustains the regime -supposedly, in our societies, democratic consent- gives way? Indeed, El Roto may be suggesting that rather than it being a case of us looking at those in power with the hopeful expectation that they might return our gaze and, if not oblige our wishes, at least obey the law of physics, we become transfixed by the spectacle those in power put on show for us, of their seeming ability to defy our natural expectations, through displays of impassive cruelty and disdain.

One cannot be in doubt about the authoritarian turn of the bailout-era Irish government and the naked contempt for democracy that is unfolding, in the actions of its representatives and in the press that serves it. But, we should not be transfixed by it. As the piece below suggests, we are talking about a moment of a ‘precious margin for action’, in which the terrain is, as another writer points out, ‘ripe with possibility‘. And that means, among other things, exposing the cracks by taking to the streets this May, starting with the May Day Rally on May 1.

Translated from the blog of Raimundo Viejo Viñas, On The Wobbly’s Road.

Pills of antagonism, 7: Selective dictatorship

The history of the 20th century was the history of democratic progress. It was also, and not by chance, the history of the progress of movement politics. Both processes can be seen, in fact, as interlinked. It could not be any other way: democratisation, for the simple fact that a democratic regime is one founded on citizen participation, cannot be realised without collective action (which is necessarily contentious when democracy has not yet been established). Collective action, for its part, needs to operate democratically in order to sustain itself over time (there is a worse enemy for a movement than repression from the outside: the absence of democracy among those who drive it). In sum: without democratisation there can be no movement, and without a movement there can be no democratisation.

It is something different, however, that collective action institutionalised in a particular political regime (for example, elections based on the present electoral law) should be considered enough to guarantee democratic rule, and not, on the contrary, the means of curtailing the very bases of democracy – the present electoral law, in fact, allows for something like 30% to allow an absolute majority to impose its policies. Or that the lack of mechanisms for accountability to the citizens should permit absurdities such as governing without giving the slightest explanation, or what is even worse, by providing explanations that are simply embarrassing.

The limits of so-called liberal democracy

When the institutional capacity of a regime exhausts its sources of legitimacy, there inevitably appear contentious forms of collective action which problematise de-democratisation. This is what 15M was. But it is no less inevitable that those who benefit from the corruption of the regime and its deconstitution (in original, deconstitución) should reach for the resources at their disposal to sink the social mobilisation.

Here is where we find ourselves today: faced with the strategy of tension, faced with the desperate search of the recovery of a social control that escapes the grasp of the party of order everywhere when the party of democratisation rebels against the regime. Rule is enforced, once again, according to the ABC of the theory of the absolutist State.

As Jorge Moruno reminded us only yesterday:

‘And upon this ground it is that also in subjects who deliberately deny the authority of the Commonwealth established [the Spanish translation of Commonwealth used here is ‘Estado’, i.e. State], the vengeance is lawfully extended.. because the nature of this offence consists in the renouncing of subjection, which is a relapse into the condition of war commonly called rebellion; and they that so offend, suffer not as subjects, but as enemies. For rebellion is but war renewed.

Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan.’

For whoever disobeys, the condition of war; they will no longer be considered subjects, but enemies. The Schmittian dialectic of such Hobbesian inspiration is reborn in the very heart of the liberal matrix, leaving democracy to one side so that it can, finally, reveal the ruler in its purely dictatorial character. Wherever dictatorship cannot be imposed on a mass scale, autocrats need to open fissures in the regime of guarantees that allow them to generalise a culture of emergency.

A slow installation of dictatorship

Dictatorship has to be experienced today at a molecular level before it can corrupt the guarantees of the democratic regime in a generalised manner. The old Nazi lesson of the Weimar years reappears today, reformulated with the same tactics as always (the dehumanisation of the enemy, the preventive violation of the private sphere, etc), only updated for the great democratising success of movement politics in the 20th century, and unleashed from within liberal democracy. We must urgently recall Poulantzas when he said that fascism is nothing more than capitalism under state of exception.

We are speaking of a selective dictatorship, a regime of power that can feed on the limited democracy that is liberal democracy as long as the multitude does not flood its institutional frame through generalised practices of disobedience. This regime of liberal democracy itself has been historically contingent on the power of the multitude, which is functionally inoperative, for this reason, under neoliberal rule.

Let no-one be confused, however; the destruction of liberal democracy at the hands of autocratic liberalism takes time. This is the precious margin for action in which the politics of the movement must unfold: by steering clear of repertoires that serve the strategy of tension (such as burning waste containers for the sake of it), but without stepping back an inch from the practice and extension of those other repertories that shift fear to the other side until installing the process of absolute democracy, the political regime of the commons.

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Notes on sovereignty

A standard justification for the cuts to public services, the policy of prioritising the repayment of private speculator debts over funding for hospitals and schools, the policy of converting private speculator debt into sovereign debt, is that ‘we’ have lost our sovereignty, or, in a more refined version, ‘we’ have lost our ‘economic sovereignty’, as though the sovereignty of a state also operated in ways independent of the economic sphere.  

Let me examine what this means in a little detail. I don’t plan to go into an abstract discussion of different conceptions of sovereignty here. Instead, I want to focus on the effects achieved by this claim, which is made repeatedly by politicians of the ruling parties and the media outlets that seek to form public opinion.

The constitution of Ireland makes the following declaration: ‘The Irish nation hereby affirms its inalienable, indefeasible, and sovereign right to choose its own form of Government, to determine its relations with other nations, and to develop its life, political, economic and cultural, in accordance with its own genius and traditions.’

So, among other things, the Irish nation has an inalienable, indefeasible and sovereign right to develop its economic life. Therefore a declaration, from a member of the government, that economic sovereignty has been lost, amounts –if we take it seriously- to saying that the constitution has been suspended.

Now, declaring something to be the case does not always make it true in fact. And if someone happened to press a member of the political class or one of its court stenographers on the matter of precisely which constitutional provision enables people to act as the government of the people of Ireland in light of their own claim that the constitution has been suspended, we can imagine a likely answer. It would be something like, well, we don’t really mean economic sovereignty sensu stricti, it’s just a shorthand to describe the effect of the weight of governmental responsibilities in terms of formal agreements, debt obligations, and so on, in terms of how this constrains us with regard to our economic policy decisions and how these respond to the needs of the citizens.

So, ‘we have lost our economic sovereignty’ in this light isn’t intended as an assertion of constitutional fact but simply a rhetorical device. Then we should ask: why use this particular rhetorical device? Here are some suggestions.

For one, the stentorian character it invokes, its pseudo-constitutionality, its juridical heft, is intended to displace responsibility for the violent effects of the measures contained in the economic adjustment programme onto the European authorities, by citing powerlessness but by still asserting the final legitimacy of the government in collaborating with these authorities in introducing the measures. In other words, we (i.e., you) have no choice but to obey because my statesmanlike aura and a world of complex legalisms say so.

Second, its very pseudo-constitutionality really does involve acting and behaving as if the constitution were suspended. By which I mean the claim of lost sovereignty is a way of invoking, clearing the way for and justifying real emergency measures, not through the introduction of new legislation, but by promoting a passive disregard for democratic rights set forth in the constitution, however limited in scope and application these rights may be. In other words, pay no heed to your documented rights, don’t bother embarking on any sort of pointless exercises in democratic litigation, we’ve got to get ‘our sovereignty’ back!  

Third, it is part of a performance intended to shore up consent for the essential legitimacy of national representative democracy at the very moment when such systems are less and less responsive to the needs and wishes of their electorates and more and more responsive to the demands for plunder from the financial sector. In other words, we know this parliamentary democracy shit is important to you: that’s why we’re working hard to give you some. And hence we’re taking water, a basic human need, and transubstantiating it into a tradable commodity: so that democracy in the future might flow free.

Fourth, it is a way of positioning a transnational crisis, afflicting vast swathes of the population in Europe who are victims of economic policies concocted by political and economic elites in the interests of the financial sector, in terms of a purely national crisis, thereby placing the responsibility –read guilt- on the populations of each member state. In the case of Ireland, this ‘loss of sovereignty’ appears as a form of rough market justice, administered because ‘we’ were ‘living beyond our means’ (the same words fill the mouths of political and economic elites of other so-called PIGS states too). Thus the ‘recovery of sovereignty’ means giving the markets what they want, as interpreted by the European Commission, the European Central Bank, the IMF, the ratings agencies, and so on. The ‘recovery of sovereignty’, then, means embarking on something that approximates a religious undertaking: ‘we’ must lose our lives for the sake of the markets so that ‘we’ might save them. By so doing, the scene is set for the next phase of the European project: an intensification of competition between the populations of member states, bolstered by increasingly nationalistic rhetoric so as to drive out demands for political and social rights and deepen the fragmentation of increasingly pauperised working classes.

Fifth, the struggle for national independence and decolonisation in Ireland historically entailed the conquest of social and political rights, not merely a kind of carve-out from empire that would preserve the interests and dominant position of the ruling class. Second time as farce: the struggle to regain ‘our sovereignty’ means the struggle to regain the carve-out. Nothing more.

The question, then, is whether in this context of the eradication of social and political rights, a different conception of sovereignty can be advanced, a popular sovereignty that grasps the divide-and-conquer strategy of European political and economic elites within member states (in terms of divisions based on citizen status, nationality, race, gender) and across them, whilst avoiding falling into the trap set by the language of the master.

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The Right to Rebel

From Evernote:

The Right to Rebel

Getting back into the saddle after a few weeks of irregular access to the means of blog-centred production. I hope to do a bit of writing on the household tax campaign, the Fiscal Treaty and other associated matters in the next couple of weeks. First, though, a couple of translations. The first of these is an editorial of a few days back from the Spanish centrist daily El País, which acknowledges, as no Irish media outlet has, the depth of the revolt underway on account of the household tax boycott. Following on from that is a piece -not entirely unrelated in terms of subject matter- from Jorge Moruno, from last month on the right and duty to rebel.

Tax Revolt in Ireland

On 31st March last the Irish government was on the end of what may well be considered a fiscal slap from its citizens. That day was the deadline for payment of the new tax introduced in January, which requires the payment of an additional 100 euro for ownership of a residential property. An estimated 1.6 million Irish are homeowners and thus had to pay, but by the required date, only half of them had complied with the Treasury’s demand. The other half had declared itself in de facto revolt.


After a tough bailout and a recent history of five extreme austerity budgets, which will be followed by four more of equal restrictiveness, according to predictions, the mass boycott of the new tax has been interpreted as an alert signal, a warning that the citizens are starting to become very tired of so many cutbacks and so many tax rises without a glimpse of improvement in the economic situation on the horizon. The Dublin government has threatened to prosecute those who refuse to pay, and to hit them with heavy fines. But everyone knows that the Executive must tread carefully.

First, because it will not be easy to make good on its threat of prosecuting so many millions of rebels. And secondly, because a referendum has been called for the 31st of May in which citizens must ratify the European Fiscal Pact, which limits the ability of States to acquire debt; and everyone fears that the Irish, who have already voted twice against important European Union treaties, feel tempted to reject an agreement that condemns them to perpetual austerity.

Ireland had been growing for years at rates of over 8% of GDP thanks to a tax regime that was so benign for companies (and aggressive with regard to its EU partners) that the country was considered a tax haven for the big multinationals. Then the crisis exploded and with it the housing bubble. The severe corrective imposed by the EU after the financial bailout has broken the spirit of defiance of the Celtic Tiger, but not the capacity for resistance on the part of a growing number of citizens who stand opposed to austerity.


In 16th century Europe the process known as the enclosures began, which stretched on into the 19th century. This process got rid of the communal property that was held in land, pasture and livestock by the inhabitants and peasants of the area and the federated communes. The lands gradually became the property of one or a few owners. To the cry of All things are in common! -Omnia sunt communia-‘ Thomas Müntzer and his followers struggled against those who put fences on the land, in the German Peasants’ War. In 1649 Gerrard Winstanley the founder of the English grouping known as the True Levellers announced that:

"England is not a Free People, till the Poor that have no Land, have a free allowance to dig and labour the Commons"

In 1688 the "Glorious Revolution" took place in England, which established that all men were equal and that they shared the same nation, that is, the same equality at birth -we the people. The Right to rebellion was the philosophy relied upon for the overthrow of James II. Though it is true that, already in the 12th century, Thomas Aquinas accepted the possibility of rebelling against the King if he acted like a tyrant against his subjects. In 1776 the Declaration of Independence of the US made clear that:

‘natural law teaches that the people are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights and may alter or abolish a government that becomes destructive of those rights’

Some years later, the French Revolution institutionalised the Right to Rebellion, in its Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizen. In the well-known article 35, the ruler is warned that

‘When the government violates the rights of the people, insurrection is for the people and for each portion of the people the most sacred of rights and the most indispensable of duties.’

But what does what happened centuries ago have to do with our current situation? As we are used in recent decades to forgetting the past, they have made us believe that our time has no past and that it naturally entailed the only possible future. They might reply, that is false. Our institutions emanate precisely from the general will of the people as sole sovereign, which expresses itself and chooses its legitimate rulers in free elections.

Based on a watered down and more liberal than democratic version of Rousseau’s social contract, the parliamentarianism of our time has wound up completely obsolete. Not obsolete because it has been surpassd by forms and processes of democratic decision making which expand the capability and inclusion of ever more people to debate in the res publica and to enjoyment of common riches. No, this is due above all to the fact that today, sovereignty does not even reside in parliament, but in transnational entities that no-one elected through methods of liberal election. What is more, not only has no-one elected the IMF, or the World Bank, or a director of Citigroup, in addition, as if it could be no other way, their conception of government is always that of a war footing. The market it loaded with belligerent energy and rhetoric; the firepower of Clausewitz now resides on stock trading floors that take aim at people’s lives.

There lies the paradox: liberal parliamentarianism is an obstacle for the same people who identify with this system today. Imposing the financial war government can only be achieved by destroying liberal political logic, but always by appealing to its legitimacy as a democratic form. Passing off as consensus what is war de facto. They make a slaughterhouse and they call it peace, said Tacitus.

It is a bit what Marx understood from an economic point of view, as with the joint stock company: the abolition of private property through the very framework of the private property of capitalist production.


It is the same logic that officially still makes appeals to jobs as the mechanism that creates social inclusion, when materially this is no longer so. But it is used ideologically as a trick for enslaving people in a new way, in the same way as happens with the legitimacy of parliamentary institutions. Although the ritual and the forms are still established, the capacity for political decision is subordinate to the diktat, the "confidence" of the markets and not to the sovereignty of the general interest. The cutbacks and the plight of basic rights such as education, health, housing, mobility, or a decent income, are being tramped down so as to establish a regime of kleptocracy.


We appeal therefore to that natural law, that duty, which is no other than the right to rebellion, to civil disobedience. A practice that has never before been previously legitimated by those who acted as sovereign in their time. Without disobedience there is no possibility of democratising a society, to deny conflict is as Simmel points out; to evade its historical and socialising function in multiple and distinct respects. To oppose what is legitimate to what is legal is the basis of every advance in the domain of rights, and of human progress; in this gap, history from below takes place.

But it is not just a matter of questioning what exists, but also of transcending it as far as possible, that is, it is not a matter of a few rotten apples, but the entire barrel. The philosopher Spinoza interprets the work of Machiavelli in terms of his intention to show to what extent -as many would plan on doing- attempting the brutal suppression of a tyrant is madness, unless the causes that brought about the tyranny are done away with.


In this sense, with regard to events on 29th February past in Barcelona, we should not allow ourselves to be blinded by the spectacularity and the media impact. This goes as much for those who are amazed by the images as those horrified by them. To get into the debate about violence in the terms imposed by the regime is always to take on the speech of the master. The discourse of the ‘anti-sistema’ (frequently used generic and pejorative term for anyone who adopts any sort of anti-capitalist position) of the professionals of violence, situated every possible response within the same ideologically predefined frame. Our debate about violence must be of long and deeper reach, elaborated out of our autonomy, out of our perspective as a movement. The one that understands that getting paid €600 is violence, and that the privatising of social goods means an attack on living conditions.

As Machiavelli said, let’s not get distracted by the sound of the fuss and let’s look at the effectiveness. In other words, the capacity of our methods and actions to be decisive in the direction taken by reality. The strivings for freedom, which are those that have to do with ensuring the entire population has a common wealth, in a broad sense, that belongs to everyone. This stance means our approaches have a secular basis, free of dogmatisms, folkloric obsessions, unquestioned truths, moral prejudices grounded in inertia and the whole string of stumbling blocks in our path when it comes to thinking politics with clarity.

Neither violence nor pacifism will serve as a compass: both stances claim to be truths in themselves, like faith, without the need to verify their effectiveness in practice. Better analysis, tactics, collective intelligence, the main tools for making use of our legitimate Right to rebellion, which adopts different forms, neither linear nor homogeneous, adapted to the moment and the context, like a body without organs. A multitude able to apply simple rules to complex behaviours. More than understanding who, it is interesting to know the what of the enemy of freedom, the relations that manage all things from the point of view of exchange value, of commodities.

Today we are still in yesterday, but in the historic time that falls on us to live in. Yesterday, Saint Just declared that "there can be no freedom for the enemies of freedom". Today the squares shout: "if you do not let us dream, we shall not let you sleep".

Everything changes, the spirit remains.

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Fifth Letter to the Lefts: Boaventura de Sousa Santos

Translated from Rebelión. This is the fifth such letter. You can read translations of the previous four here: 1, 2, 3, 4

Fifth Letter To The Lefts

Why is it that the current crisis of capitalism strengthens those who have caused it? Why are the reasons for the “solution” to the crisis based on the predictions that they make and not the consequences, which they nearly always deny? Why is it so easy for the State to replace welfare for citizens with welfare for banks? Why is it that the vast majority of citizens view their own impoverishment, and the scandalous enrichment of a few, as something necessary and inevitable so as to prevent the situation from getting worse? Why is the stability of the financial markets only possible at the cost of the instability of life for the majority of the population? Why is it that capitalists, in general, are decent people as individuals, but capitalism, as a whole, is amoral? Why is economic growth nowadays the cure for all ills in the economy and in society without it being asked whether the social and environmental costs are sustainable or not? Why was Malcolm X right when he warned: “If you aren’t careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed and loving the people who are doing the oppressing”? Why do left-wing criticisms of neoliberalism enter the news with the same speed and irrelevance with which they leave it? Why are alternatives so scarce when they become more necessary?

These questions ought to form part of the agenda for political reflection for the lefts, or before long they will be consigned to the museum of bygone joys. This would not matter if it did not mean, as it does mean, the end of future happiness for the popular classes. The reflection ought to start off here: neoliberalism is, above all, a culture of fear, of suffering and of death for the great majority: it is not possible to combat it effectively without opposing it with a culture of hope, happiness and life. The difficulty that the lefts have in order to become the bearers of this other culture arises from having fallen for a long time into the trap that the right hve always used to hold on to power: to pare reality down to what exists, however unjust and cruel it might be, so that the hope of the majority should seem unrealistic. Fear in the waiting kills off hope in happiness. Against this trap it is necessary to start off from the idea that reality is the sum of what exists and of everything that within it is emerging as a possibility and as a struggle for its realisation. If they are unable to detect what is emerging, the lefts can succumb or end up in the museum, which in practical effect is the same.

This is the new point of departure for the lefts, the new common basis that will afterwards allow them to diverge fraternally on the responses that they give to the formulated questions. Once the reality upon which one has to act politically has been widened, the approaches of the left must prove credible to the vast majority, as proof that it is possible to struggle against the supposed inevitability of fear, suffering and death in the name of the right to hope, happiness and life. This struggle must be guided by three key principles: to democratise, to de-marketise and decolonise.

Democratising democracy: because the current version has been taken hostage by antidemocratic forces. It has to be made plain that a decision taken democratically cannot be annulled the following day by a ratings agency or by a fall in the stock markets (as could happen soon in France).

Demarketising means showing that we use, we produce and we exchange commodities, but we are not commodities nor do we allow relations with others and with nature to be conducted as if they were one more commodity. Before we are entrepreneurs or consumers we are citizens and therefore we must sign up to the imperative that not everything can be bought or is for sale, that there are public goods and common goods such as water, health and education.

Decolonising means eradicating from social relations any authorisation for dominating others under the pretext that they are inferior: whether because they are women, because they have a different colour of skin, or because they profess a ‘strange’ religion.

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