“The left has disappeared” – Manuel Castells interview.

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This is a translation of an interview with Manuel Castells, published in El País and conducted by Francesc Arroyo. The interview is to coincide with the publication of his new book, Redes de indignación y esperanza (Networks of outrage and hope).  

Give your assessment of the indignados movement.

It depends on the country. In Iceland the banks got nationalised, the two parties that had governed since 1927 were thrown out, a new government was created with participative democracy, a new Constitution was drawn up, debated on the internet with thousands of citizens taking part. It was a revolution, a peaceful one, but a revolution. In certain Arab countries dictatorships came to an end. Islamism may not be to everyone’s liking, but it is something different. Dictatorships that had gone unchanged for decades came to an end in weeks. In Tunisia. In Egypt. In other instances, forewarned rulers turned revolts into civil war. In the United States the distinction between rich and poor was alien to American culture and it is now a live issue and had a knock on effect on the (presidential) campaign, in favour of Obama.

In Spain?

Spain is the country in Europe where the political system has shown the least sensitivity to protest, with the two largest parties agreeing to ignore it. The most dramatic case has been with mortgages. The suicides [there have been numerous instances of suicides in recent months in Spain by people who were going to be evicted from their homes] have set off an alarm in society, but this has been getting highlighted for more than a year. Public opinion has registered the criticisms from the 15-M. Surveys show 70% support, but they also record that hardly anyone believes there is a capacity for change. People’s consciousness has changed, but the political system remains watertight. And this can degenerate into confrontation and violence.

Violence that the movement rejects outright.

Yes, but there is a brew getting fermented by police provocations (this happens in Spain) and young people’s rage. With a mobilised, outraged society, without any credible response from institutions, it is difficult to avoid violence. I hope there is none, and many people in the 15-M hope so too. But we are talking about a movement, not about a party, or a hermetic organisation that can control people’s rage.

You point out that part of the mistrust with regard to (political) parties is due to the fact that they are subservient to financial capitalism. But you note that there is no rejection of capitalism.

Within the movement there is a tendency that is anticapitalist, but this is not true of the whole movement. What is being rejected is the financial system as it currently operates. And also the subservience of institutions and parties to this state of affairs. The movement arises from economic and social malaise, but above all it is a political movement that demands real democracy. It denounces the lack of an alternative. Unless one enters the political system, but for that you have the Spanish electoral law that blocks the entry of large minorities. The movement has made numerous reasonable proposals for the democratisation of the electoral system because society has changed, but the political system does not change. And it is essential for the connection to be re-established.

At one point in the book you draw together some of these proposals. Of the 12 you identify, 8 are negative.

The movement is, above all, a movement of critique, of rejection. Beyond that debate has to be opened up. And it has been opened up both in the form of assemblies as well as internet networks, in the hope that from this debate there emerges formulas for the future that might be adopted by the citizenry. There are positive proposals: the reform of the electoral law, changes to the mortgage system, mechanisms for controlling the banking sector. What does not exist is a programme, as this would make it a party, which it is not. But this movement has generated more debate and created more political consciousness than parties during the last 20 years. And all changes start off in people’s mentality. Later on it translates into votes. The problem is that there are no political proposals to reflect this new sensibility.

Such that, whenever there are elections, the formations that win are those that stand for the opposite.

The left has disappeared. Today, in political terms, we are in a constituent period. The conservative political parties are not disappearing, but the left is in crisis, despite the fact that there is a centre-left space that does not get filled because the electoral law serves as a blocking mechanism. In any case, alternatives are coming to the fore.

For the long term.

The Spanish movement has a slogan “we are going slow because we are going far.” That is, this is a very self-reflexive movement that has a historical perspective and has begun to ask what kind of political effect ought to occur.  What it cannot do is become a party, that would cause it to lose its mobilising legitimacy, but pacts between new organisational forms and currents of the movement can be expected. The political system has to be flexible. In Italy, for example, it is; in Spain, it is not. Spanish parties feel harassed, they believe that if they open up they will disappear. And they are correct, especially the left. And that is dramatic.

The movement communicates through computer networks, just as workers previously organised when meeting in the factory.

All social movements are born out of communication. The isolated individual with his anger has no strength. He can commit suicide. Suicides are what precede Islamic revolutions. People move from humiliation to self-destruction. Luckily there is a space for communication, the internet, in which many young people live. People organise themselves where they live. Workers communicated with each other in the factories, young people today do it on the internet, but it is vital that they then occupy public space. By occupying public space, people realise that they exist and can impose their right to the city over and above                the rules of traffic. What produces historical changes is the combination of a space for communication, a space for meeting, and a space for a political event (incidencia). These are old freedoms (of assembly, of expression), translated to the digital era. Movements are born on the web and they are organised in urban space. And since the occupation of urban space cannot go on forever (the police sometimes takes care of that) they withdraw to the web again, but they don’t disappear.

A communication that power combats with coercion and manipulation.

The perfect domination is the one that cannot be felt. It can be out of adherence to dominant values or resignation and hence processes of persuasion are fundamental. When these fail, there is a resort to coercion, but the best systems of control do not require the use of the police.

You highlight the role of emotions, of the fear that paralyses or the hope that stimulates.

The first emotion to appear is outrage. Fear grips people. Fear of losing the little they have left. Fear and resignation paralyse people. This blows apart when one can take no more. In that moment fear is overcome. Hope arrives when you overcome fear and you find, on networks, in the street, many people who are like you. It begins on speaking with another person, on feeling with another person. On perceiving that we do not have power but we are together and we have right on our side. That is the step from fear to hope. The effects do not occur in the short term, but even so, people feel better out protesting than staying at home.

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