Of Rising Tides and Shattering Floors

This is a translation of a piece originally from the blog Al final de la asamblea on November 26th, and republished on eldiario.es on 28th November.


(Image via 4ojos.com)

It is written from the perspective of a person who is an active participant in 15-M assemblies but also works as a health visitor, and it explores the changes in attitude and activity on the part of healthcare workers in Madrid in reaction to the plans for privatising hospitals in the region, and how the 15-M movement has functioned as a guiding influence upon people whose idea of politics is the constricted one supplied by neoliberal ideology.

The mobilisation of these workers is known as the Marea Blanca [White Tide] and has seen immense demonstrations on the streets of Madrid and other cities, in defence of public health services.

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(via Periódico Diagonal)

The marea blanca and the thawing (or how nothing changes while everything changes)

I ask B, a nursing assistant in one of the public hospitals of Madrid that are going to be sold off to a private health company for ‘exploitation’, if she is going on strike next week. B has explained to me dozens of times her stance regarding such matters of politics and life. She had told me regularly and intensely about the disastrous ‘legacy of ZP’ [Zapatero, ex-Prime Minister] that was the cause of what we were going through, about the destruction wrought by unions upon the country, the problem of liberados [basically, people on secondment to work for a union while maintaining their job], the mother of all evils. B also told me how happy she was that her daughter was going to a private primary school run by nuns where there would never be a strike, which was something done by trade unionists and people who, in general, don’t want to work.

B. replies to me without hesitation that yes, she is going on strike this week ‘because of the sustainability plan’ despite the fact that this will push this month’s family finances to the limits of what is acceptable, despite the fact that she asks me bitterly whilst looking me in the eye “and do you think it will make something happen? I doubt it.”, she answers herself. When we spoke about the last general strike she keeps talking to me about the unions and about Toxo and Méndez [general secretaries of the two main Spanish unions, Comisiones Obreras and the General Workers’ Union], as if it had been only those two gentlemen who had taken part. B. is always a hyper-summarised broadcast from the media imaginary of the neoliberal right-wing. If I ask her where a particular piece of news or information comes from, she normally responds, surprised, “from the TV” or “from the radio”. She doesn’t say Telemadrid [rabid right-wing Madrid TV channel] or the COPE [rabid right-wing Catholic national radio station], because they are simply the TV and the radio.

B, right now, has no words to explain what is happening. She isn’t just going to go on strike because of her endangered job; she actively collects signatures to prevent the dismantling of the Princesa hospital and she participates in the processes of mobilisation that have covered the hospital with sheets and banners, inside and out, saying that the hospital is not for sale and Public Healthcare. B thinks it’s madness for the hospital to be sold, it’s not certain that they are going to get rid of her because the new hospitals that are being put up for sale already had the format of a private hospital from the start, with part of their management privatised and with unspectacularly paid jobs, narrowly defined and strictly ‘regulated’ for the functioning of each unit. So it is unlikely they will cut her wages or that her job will be surplus to requirements. But it is madness to privatise health, something that B sees as the path to the dismantling of public health care, and that is madness and a terrible injustice, she says.

In B’s Hospital they are going to attend the strike as if they were a single person.

A. is a doctor in the Princesa Hospital who, like the majority of her colleagues in service, never talks about politics, a fact she even boasts about. They concern themselves in the main with working. A says she has never gone on strike (just like her colleagues), she says so quickly and a little alarmed, making clear that she is not that kind of person, it is not the type of thing she does, there isn’t even a political explanation, she doesn’t even consider herself right-wing, or left-wing, she would be unable to, she simply has no interest in politics, to say nothing of strikes, which go against her principles.

On the days that I was setting up the camp in Sol, the doctors from this hospital with whom I would hold conversations would look at it all as if it were something from Mars, a Mars expedition that, without finding it disgusting or being openly against it, was light years away from the,, as if it were something for idealists, dreamers, young hippies and such. Let’s just say that at that time, a person could become deeply depressed while contemplating the possibility that some day, people like the doctors in the Princesa could be actively involved with us against the madness of the powers of capital, in the attempt to build a more democratic and just society. Deeply depressed.

At the Princesa Hospital they’ve been cutting off the traffic in the nearby streets, placing themselves in front of the cars on the thoroughfare, and then going around the hospital doing their thing, twice a day. The shouts and the chants speak of public-healthcare, of they-don’t-represent-us and this-is-a-robbery and even these-are-our-weapons as they lift their hands. There are no flags or union emblems, these are not welcome, least of all from political parties. There are many individual banners and signs that solely represent the person who carries them. The drifts into the street are spontaneous and of course not communicated, they are led by no-one, but they always happen. Everything is decided in assembly, in a large assembly in the Hospital assembly hall. In the demonstrations that cut the street off, sometimes in the rain and in the assemblies you will find A, who had never gone on strike and who never talks about politics. This week her service, which is always inundated with patients, will be shut due to everyone being on strike.

R. is a doctor who attends patients in his private clinic, in a street and neighbourhood in Madrid with high purchasing power. Things are going better than ever and he tells me so in his office decorated with a flag of Spain on a little pole and a large crucifix. R. belongs to a traditionally well-off family of liberal professionals and the splendour of old nobility. They have been practising solely private medicine for generations. When asked about the ‘sustainability’ plan, R says that it is simply madness, simply madness to privatise public healthcare because now it will obey criteria of profitability and you can’t do that, it’s very dangerous if you are to have public health. It is intolerable that a party should rule with an absolute majority, he says. It is totally incomprehensible, he doesn’t know what has happened, if it’s a mistake, a tactic, if someone has gone mad or what.
In the Princesa Hospital one very often hears the words “don’t politicise”. It’s a demand. The majority of doctors and nurses involved in the mobilisation (nearly the whole hospital) speak of ‘not politicising’. It’s about defending the Princesa Hospital, preventing the injustice and the irrationality of its closure, but not about politicising. They’ll cut off streets, hold assemblies, debates, demonstrate daily, they’ll call press conferences, mobilise people over social networks, argue against the privatisation of health and the dismantling of the hospital, they’ll have an indefinite healthcare strike, but they shall not “politicise”.

Another doctor from the same hospital who takes part daily in the demonstrations, cutting off streets, collection of signatures and lastly this weeks strike, has the typical profile of a person who is very conservative. Very. Belonging to a family and a tradition that is clearly and openly conservative, Christian, and right-wing. Nonetheless she sees what is happening with the Princesa as “crazy”, “absurd”, “irrational” and that it has to do with eliminating public health care and making a profit from it, both things she sees as outrageous. And of course, this is not about politics, but what is reasonable.

I would go as far as saying that the doctors, nurses and health workers in general at the Princesa Hospital are not motivated by the risk to their jobs and their pay checks, however much this might have been the catalyst, the detonator that managed to move many of them out of their place in the world, shaking them and confronting them with a dubious, problematic and grave situation against which one must take a stand and act. I think that the mobilisations that are taking place, including the incredibly large white tide on Sunday 18th November in Madrid, are deeply sincere in their demands and they are seeking what they say they are: a public health system, for everyone.

There are many more testimonies and examples of doctors and health workers with whom I have shared this process. The most common thing is to be left speechless, it’s that look of a doctor or an assistant, for example PP voters and typical defenders of their discourse one day after another until, now, they are left speechless, sincerely and simply. They ask: “what is going on?”

I think we are witnessing a deep political thawing out of ever wider sectors, a large part of society that finds itself affected and obliged to re-think, take a stance and act. Gradually we see a breaking of windows that allowed for a stabilised interpretation of the world, of reality, that ensured that everything stayed essentially the same as itself, through which the ruling powers had imposed a symbolic order on the field of what can be comprehended, the world organised in its categories of what is normal, necessary, right-wing, left-wing, unions, fascists, Catalans, etc.

There is a shattering, with increasing speed, of glass floors had kept worlds immobilised in a vice of contradiction (I would do something, but who do I vote for? I’d defend my job but not with the unions; I’d go out on the streets but not alongside a perroflauta [derogatory term for person of unconventional appearance; perro = dog, flauta = flute]; these people are bad but ZP is worse; they are all thieves but as long as they aren’t cutting people’s heads off I’m not moving; etc etc etc); glass ceilings that kept people’s lives at a remove from the possibility of the political [lo político], from the possibility of becoming concerned in thought and in action with whatever it is that’s going on outside, with what is now happening to us in first person plural, with the possibility/necessity of doing something.

Glass floors shattering open and entire sectors, healthcare workers, civil servants, teachers and even police draining onto the common terrain of having to do, to demand, to talk and to decide. To demand participation in what is public, to oppose what is supposed to be beyond the scope of decision, that is, the crisis, with its overarching justification as a natural disaster, which is to say, non-negotiable and apolitical par excellence, or, alternatively, the responsibility of ordinary people, who have lived-beyond-our-means. These arguments can no longer hold back a tide that overwhelms them, and which, from my point of view, is opening up a common space, characterised by what is non-sectarian, non-identitarian, non-represented, non-delegated, and is represented by words such as common [común], public, democracy, persons…

Meanwhile, we fix our gaze on the Parliament like a cat on a mouse hole and we claim that nothing is happening there, meanwhile, we declare that the day of revolution in which everything changes has yet to arrive, meanwhile, many keep on looking up to heaven anxiously to see if someone can take charge of the situation and the suffering, a redeemer, a democratic and justice-dispensing liberator, a party or something. Meanwhile, many get depressed amid anxiety caused by urgency and the absence of forthcoming solutions.

Meanwhile, turning our gaze to one side, in the least spectacular way, perhaps, the ground is shattering. Whilst we are awaiting revolution and the solutions that change everything, perhaps, right beside us, everything is changing.

27-N, White tide

Postscript after the demo of 27-N.

27-N, a regular Tuesday, the coldest afternoon of this receding autumn, the #mareablanca has taken the streets of Madrid once again. Beyond anyone’s predictions, after so many days of mobilisation already, with all the attendant doubts (“will it make any difference?” is the most frequently heard phrase in one-to-one conversations) on the back of a recent, sudden, stumbling and nonetheless absolutely determined thawing out, the demonstration was absolutely unprecedented, massive and energetic.

It is difficult to remember,  despite the times we are in, such a density of slogans, chants, banners, placards and white cloths explaining what each person feels and demands.

A tremendous energy has just been liberated. In white. [pun in the original referring not only to the colour of the demonstration, but a sense of starting anew, as if with a new page being turned]

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