Monthly Archives: January 2013

The Struggles of the Magi

Continuing in the festive vein from the last post, here is a piece by Isaac Rosa, published in on the 3rd January, on the subject of the parades (Cabalgatas) of the Magi (Reyes Magos). The final sentence is left untranslated.

Cabalgatas and neighbourhood struggles (with Balthasar in an internment centre)

Let me tell you a story about the Reyes Magos, and my neighbourhood, that might seem a minor thing when compared to everything that’s going on at the minute, but perhaps it will help in understanding how we ended up where we are, and it even has a useful moral for the coming times.

My neighbourhood is Hortaleza, in the Northeast of Madrid, an old village absorbed by the capital, with a long tradition of participative and contestatory neighbourhood movement, and a strong network of association. In 1979 the residents decided to organise a Cabalgata de Reyes so that the children could see Their Oriental Majesties in their neighbourhood. Note the date, which is not just any date: 1979, when the political and social thrust of the Transition was at its peak, when citizens were losing their fear, before the coup d’etat of 1981 ordered a halt, and before the PSOE, already in power, set about decapitating and demobilising the neighbourhood movement that was so important at the end of the dictatorship.


(Photo taken from the Cabalgata Popular de Hortaleza website)

For three decades everything took place without much of a fuss, every 5th of January Melchor, Gaspar and Balthasar move through the neighbourhood. During this time the landscape and above all the inhabitants of Hortaleza changed: its population grew at a great speed, there was urbanisation until the last piece of countryside was absorbed, thousands of dwellings were built, many of them at high prices which changed the socio-economic composition of the old working class neighbourhood. Despite this, the community spirit remained strong, and the residents of Hortaleza led many struggles to improve their neighbourhood, and joined in with others on a greater scale.

Until 2007 comes, when the council decided that there had been enough people’s parad: for the next edition, in 2008, the children’s excitement would be in the hands of professionals, the area deserved a quality parade, the residents’ floats were nice but tacky, you could see a lot of cellophane and cardboard beneath the tinsel. Once again, note the date: 2007, when the two bubbles, the global financial bubble and the Spanish real estate bubble, were about to blow, you could see the crisis coming in the form of an avalanche, but we kept on looking elsewhere and carried along by the momentum of the good times.

So the municipal rulers decided to take charge of the parade, but to privatise it: in 2008 it would be organised by a business, and it would change its route, it would no longer move through the popular areas of the district (for example the UVA, a re-housing development from the sixties), and instead it would go round a big shopping centre, which by coincidence was the sponsor of the parade.  

But since in Hortaleza we have fixed ideas, we residents were not content to turn up as spectators to a parade that would no doubt be more colourful, more spectacular, in which you wouldn’t see cellophane or the fake beard on the Reyes; but it would not be our parade, the one in which the associations spent weeks preparing the floats, which helped to build community, in which the children had a central role, and which moreover went through the most modest areas.  

So, in an act of disobedience that sits alongside the many insubordinate acts seen in the neighbourhood, we decided to go ahead with our parade on our own, with our route and our means. And without any help from the council; on the contrary, for years the council had seen fit to place stumbling blocks in front of the residents, changing the date and the route at the last minute so as not to take away from the importance of their privatised parade, and sabotaging the residents’ work at every turn.

Until, after four years of battle, the last edition came, the 2012 one, and the council suspended the ‘official’ parade, the sponsored and privatised one that went round the shopping centre, as well as cancelling the majority of parades in the district, and removing the funding it gave to the organisers. The scissors of cutbacks do not understand excitement, and if any child wants to see the Reyes Magos, let them go the Castellana [the central thoroughfare in Madrid] and enjoy the central parade, which make no mistake is laid on by professionals, without citizen participation, and adorned by the logos of its sponsors: Mastercard, El Corte Inglés, Movistar, Vodafone, Samsung or Universal, among other traffickers in excitement.

And nonetheless, the children of Hortaleza will also get their visit from the Reyes Magos this year, because we residents never throw in the towel: after winning the battle with the council, we continue to run our own parade, the same one as always, and it is now the only one in the neighbourhood again, made with the efforts of many and without council help, with the economic assistance of residents and traders.

There you have the moral, should it be of use: the neighbourhood turtle beats the council hare and its sponsors, if the children of Hortaleza today have a parade it is because their elders fought for it, we laid claim to it, we resisted pressure and siren songs, we stayed together when the comfortable thing was to watch the float with the hypermarket logo pass, we denounced the privateers, we operated in a way that was autonomous, participative, horizontal and democratic: in sum, we took control of what was ours, what was everyone’s, what was public. And we have won.


(Photo taken from the Cabalgata Popular de Hortaleza website)

Can we come away with any lesson for other struggles? I believe so. Obviously it is not the same thing to fight for a parade as it is to resist the dismantling of public education or health privatisation; it is not a matter of comparing since neither the effort nor the adversaries are comparable in either case. But in the end the basis is the same, and the strategy to follow is identical: resist, denounce, disobey, get organised, build a community, take control.

I have told you about Hortaleza, because it is mine and because its story is long. But it is not the only one that will emerge tomorrow thanks to the resistance of its residents. Butarque-Villaverde and Carabanchel will do the same, neighbourhoods now siblings to mine from so many recent struggles.

In those cases too, the council laid down the stumbling blocks that it could, even preventing them at the last moment from parading on Saturday, which they finally achieved by seeking permission from the Government Delegation, which is not there to authorise parades but demonstrations. Another good metaphor for what we are living through, and it doesn’t end there: in the case of Carabanchel, King Balthasar is locked up in a CIE (Centre for Internment of Foreigners) in order to be expelled to his country of origin, proof that not even the excitement of children is safe from this terrible time.

If you are in Madrid and you have children, I invite you to bring them tomorrow to the parades of Hortaleza, Butarque-Villaverde or Carabanchel. Let them learn early that, in this as in other things, sí se puede.



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Balthasar: Blacked Up or Locked Up

Tomorrow our kids will be going to the annual Cabalgata de Los Reyes Magos, a cavalcade through the city with various colourful floats celebrating local and global commercial enterprises geared towards selling things to children, and featuring the Three Wise Men, who, despite the growing importance of Santa Claus, are still the main night-time distributors of presents to children who have behaved in accordance with their parents' needs, desires and means.

There is great excitement round our way. I have managed to liberate myself from the obligation to go. One of the things I find hard to take about the Three Kings thing -it is not that I am a fan of Santa Claus either- is the ostentatious worship of earthly wealth and power it entails. If I were going to get theological about it, it is the antithesis of the Christmas message, which is that the real 'king' is the one denied shelter and born among the animals amid muck and shit. But it is not as if the Spanish Catholic Church is going to support my interpretation.

One of the things I have always been uncomfortable with at these processions is King Balthasar, who, in traditional representations of the Magi, is black. However, despite very many black men living in Spain, the person acting as Balthasar in the parade -which, depending on the parade, is often an opportunity for local business leaders to assert their importance and largesse to the wider community- is frequently a blacked-up white man. Like this:

When I saw the story below circulating yesterday, I thought it was a headline relating to a direct action taken to highlight conditions in Spain's internment centres. Not so. Note that my publishing this translated newswire article is not an endorsement of the police account contained in it. The police are an unreliable source.

Carabanchel's King Balthasar interned in an Immigration Internment Centre

More than ten neighbourhood associations organising the Carabanchel cavalcade demanded on Thursday the release of Senegalese man Gamou Dieng, the popular King Balthasar who is held prisoner in the Foreigner Internment Centre (CIE) in Aluche, where he will remain for the next 60 days until the order of expulsion to his country of origin is carried out, according to a joint communication by the associations.

Representatives of the associations organising the cavalcade have submitted a request for his release to the Government Delegation in Madrid via a letter. However, the Police have replied that it will not be possible because Dieng has an expulsion order, after being arrested for violent robbery, as ordered by Magistrate's Court No. 35 in Madrid. The associations and collectives of Carabanchel say that, whilst they are unaware of the circumstances surrounding his entering the CIE, "the fact of not having papers in order is not sufficient motive to hold a person in custody or to expel them from the country". According to the 15-M's People's Assembly of Leganés, he was arrested during a raid on the Leganés railway station.

However, police sources told Efe [the news agency] that Gamou Dieng is being held in the Aluche CIE on order of Magistrate's Court No. 35 of Madrid, where he was taken after being arrested for committing said violent robbery. That day an undercover policeman caught him snatching a bag from a woman in a Carabanchel park and detained him.

The Police then found out that he had an active expulsion order dating from 2009, laid down by the Government Delegation in Madrid and active until 2014. Moreover it was stated that he had three previous orders for six offences against intellectual property, on having been caught selling illegally in the street, and seven cautions for infringing the Foreigners Law. After being brought before the courts his detention in the Aluche CIE was ordered so that he would be expelled from the country.

Opposing this, associations of mothers and fathers from CEIP Antonio Machado, Colegio Amorós, CEIP Maestro Padilla and Colegio San Gabriel [schools in the area], among others, want their King Balthasar to come back and take part in the Cabalgata the day after tomorrow and insist that Gamou Dieng has always taken part in solidarity activities. "Always in a completely disinterested way", they add.

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The All-Consuming Apocalypse

Translation of a piece by Santiago Alba Rico, published in Rebelión, 3rd January 2013.


Some motives for desiring the Apocalypse.


A third of US citizens believe in the Apocalypse; 15% are sure that it will arrive in the course of their lives and 2% was convinced it would happen on the 21st of December. According to surveys and to show the quantitative difference of the US, whose norm is always the exaggeration, this percentage fell a little on a global scale: only 1 of each 10 human beings had accepted the irretrievable disappearance of planet Earth in 2012 in keeping with the supposed prediction of the Mayan calendar. We would be wrong, at any rate, to joke about the credulity of those –let’s say- 100 million people, since we know from experience that it is possible to believe in anything, from the superiority of the white race to the aphrodisiac power of the rhinoceros horn, without forgetting that the majority of humans have faith in science with the same irrationality and on account of the same absurdities –due to a kind of fiduciary tradition- as in the Holy Trinity or the revealed truths of the Koran.

We would also be wrong to attribute this apocalyptic trembling to poverty or ignorance. Let’s say that this passion for the end of the world is a typical passion of the middle classes; that is, the wide social niche situated between the earthly grounding of the poorest, who have no time for silliness, and the cynical sovereignty of the richest, whose fears never take on a cosmic dimension. It is what the Mexican writer Juan Villoro has called “catastrophe tourism”: people who can reserve a hotel beside the Mayan ruins of Yucatán to watch the spectacle close up or rent a room at the peak of Rtanj Mountain in Serbia, ‘the navel of the world’, upon which extra-terrestrials were due on the 21st of December to activate a ‘protective screen’ to save a select few from the final cataclysm. People, then, with some money set aside and people, moreover, with sufficient intellectual capacity and computer skills to draw together certain inexact pieces of knowledge relating to history and astronomy and base their catastrophic certainties upon them. David Robinson, an astrobiologist at NASA, has spent three years responding patiently to the questions of hundreds of worried citizens, convinced of the imminent apocalypse, who based their questions on Sumerian texts, Mayan calendars and nearly accurate data about the alignment of planets and distances between galaxies.


It’s normal and human to believe in silliness; and it’s even good to make the intellectual effort to show what it is based on. What is really worrying is the depth of political and human defencelessness that this reveals. In a long article published in Skeptical Inquirer , the aforementioned David Robinson reproduces some of the enquiries received over recent months, as well as the aggressive reactions to his calming answers. Robinson is taken aback at the degree of aggression, often very threatening, on the part of those excited readers who do not seek out a rational antidote to their fears but rather their confirmation. What do they fear? The end of the world? No, they fear two things laterally related and intimately fused in their minds. They fear, first of all, their rulers. That is, the first idea they want to confirm is paradoxically –they believe in the end of the world- the one that says they cannot believe anything or anyone. They want to confirm that the scientists and the politicians are lying. The Apocalypse is not a speculation; it’s a certainty. What’s the proof? Not the discovery of the planet Nibiru nor the sudden centrality of the Earth in our galaxy. “The proof is that the government denies it”, replies a citizen, accusing Robinson of complicity. NASA does not convince; its explanations irritate, inflame, outrage. “Here’s what we wanted to show: they’re lying to us again”. We could say that this typical conspiranoia [‘complotismo’] of the middle class in the US –and now internationally- feeds on the absolute discredit of scientific and political institutions; it is easier to believe in silliness (especially if it’s tragic silliness, ‘total’ silliness) when one is no longer able to believe in Parliament or in astrophysicists.

But the second fear is even more worrying. If Robinson’s readers became furious when faced with his reasoned scientific arguments it was because they feared the opposite of what they said they feared: they feared that the astronomer was right and that in the end, this Apocalypse, in which they had placed so many hopes, would not come about. They feared that nothing would happen; that everything would remain the same. Because –let’s be honest- these conspiranoid [‘complotista’] consumerist middle classes, who have lost faith in their institutions and do not control their own lives, desire the end of the world. And today they feel frustrated, empty, disorientated by this unexpected and undesired survival.

Why do they desire the end of the world? In capitalism, the deepest desires always adhere to the most banal impulses, those which are in fact the most ‘authentic’ and ‘original’. They desire the Apocalypse because they have already seen all the films, climbed onto all the rollercoasters, tried all the dishes and used up all the photos. Because the Twin Towers set the bar for excitement very high. Because an inevitable cataclysm is a good pretext for taking up smoking again or going out whoring. Because it is relaxing to think about being suddenly exempt from keeping our little domestic world turning; and from the responsibility of taking decisions without knowing where they will lead. Because we are sick of not knowing how long this will last. And because we sure as heck don’t want to die alone.

This last reason is perhaps the least banal, the least ‘authentic’, and, if you will, the most social one of all. The desire for the end of the world on the part of the conspiranoid and consumerist North American –and now international- middle classes also, or above all, reveals a destructive thirst for community. The Apocalypse represents the end of solitude and not because it involves the end of all that exists but because it unites us all in time and in space, even if it is only to kill us; because it names humanity in its totality, even it if is only to annihilate it. The desire for Apocalypse, which is a desire for a party, is a desire for final loving fusión (as is the case, in popular tradition, with all true loving fusions). It is, if you will, a mortal protest against the absorption in consumerism.

‘Populism’ is the name often given to a government that satisfies the needs of its citizens. Well, fascism is only laterally a ‘populism’. Because its programme does not consist of satisfying the needs of men but their desires. To tell the truth, it is somewhat scary to think about that rather large sector of our capitalist society that has stopped believing in its political and scientific institutions, and whose deepest and most banal desires converge upon that thunderous final explosion that –once again- we have survived.

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‘We will continue along that path even if they cut off the loans. It is not a joke. We are going to do it. But we need popular support.’ – Página/12 Interview with Alexis Tsipras

This is a translation of an interview with Alexis Tsipras for Argentina’s Página/12, conducted by Martín Granovsky and published Sunday 30th of December.

 Is Argentina still a topic of discussion in Greece with regard to reduction, default and restructuring of debt?


Yes, we talk about you.


About default or restructuring?


About everything.


And after this trip to Argentina?


We ended up a lot wiser. We studied in detail the process that took place during and after the crisis. We saw similarities and also differences. The International Monetary Fund’s prescriptions were the same in Greece as in Argentina. The medicines administered to Greece and Argentina were also the same in both countries. They failed. They drove us to catastrophe. The bed-ridden Greek patient is in a coma. All the tubes and medicine link it to the heart of Europe. It is complex. If the patient in a coma dies, it appears the Eurozone cannot survive either. That’s why I say we have similarities and differences between the Argentina of 2001 and the Greece of today. What is interesting is how the Argentinian example is presented in Europe.


Whom do you mean?

Those sectors most closely tied to the financial system. Argentina is the example of a country that said no to the world financial system. The financial sectors in Europe distort what happened here. The example bothers financial circles. That is why the ultra-liberal centrists are trying not only to distort things in ideological terms but to present a different historical account. They alter the facts. During our stay in Argentina and the meetings we held, there was coverage on Greek television news bulletins. So they put images of me meeting an Argentinian leader and, on a split screen, they showed examples of the Argentinean bank run and people beating the shutters of banks.

Without putting dates on each thing?


Without any accuracy. The message is clear: “Continue the path proposed by the Greek left and you will end up bankrupt like in Argentina.”

Does Greece find the example of restructuring debt with a write-down interesting?


Yes, of course, but first we must see what similarities there are in each country and at each historical conjuncture. The negotiation carried out by the Argentinean State after the crisis is an example to study and examine. In coming years it will no doubt be a topic in economics faculties. That shows that when there is a creditor and a debtor, both are in a difficult situation. Not just one of them. Negotiation in itself demonstrates this. But I see other positive points beyond debt restructuring. Argentinean economic development after the crisis held up even though the country remained outside lending markets. It held up because it had a broad base of production and exportation. It bore up because from the beginning it was able to revitalise its domestic economy and cover the needs of the people. In its second phase, exports were important and guaranteed the growth in Gross Domestic Product. But one also has to bear in mind that when Argentina underwent the phase of high economic growth, global growth was also high. And moreover all this happened within a positive conjuncture for the region of South America. We in Greece have neither of these positive points. Neither global growth nor a favourable regional conjuncture.


The worst of all worlds.


Yes, but at the same time we are trying to make a virtue out of necessity. With that in mind, we are in the Eurozone. Greece makes up only 2.5% of European GDP and at the same time is at the centre of global public opinion. This is not, of course, because everyone is worried about the suffering of the Greek people. There is a fear of a domino effect.


So a strong point for you is fear.


If Europe goes on like this, the main country that will be thinking about leaving the Eurozone is Germany. That means that a small country like Greece can be a little stone capable of breaking the giant machine that is the ultraliberal engine. That is why we sustained a frontal attack on a global level in the last elections. They were predicting that chaos would come. Maybe they can put up slightly with a post-neoliberal scenario. But they cannot accept it in the hard nucleus of Europe.


The key, it would seem, is Greece’s capacity to do damage.


Many times I have compared Greece’s situation with regard to its European associates with other eras. It is like the Cold War. Both sectors can press the button, but even if one does it, neither will win. The catastrophe will be everyone’s.


What would be that button today?


The button would be the explosion of the euro. But whoever loses this Cold War will be whoever takes the first step back. That is why we are preparing ourselves for a major confrontation. We have said clearly that in government we will break with the austerity treaties. We will continue along that path even if they cut off the loans. It is not a joke. We are going to do it. But we need popular support.


The political movement of the Greek left produces admiration and preoccupation in the progressive world. Admiration for its rapid growth in recent years. Preoccupation that this speed may not be sufficient.   

The movement began on two squares in Athens. Let’s give them some kind of name: the one below and the one above. The square below was always more politicised, with themed assemblies, with different talks. Many young people took part. They practised direct democracy. But the important thing is that these demonstrations were completely peaceful with great mass participation, with very many people taking part.


What happened in the square above?


It was less participative. That is why the system was more frightened by the one below. It was not the same as wrecking a bank or wrecking a cash machine. Wrecking strengthened the system. By contrast, the peaceful stance did sound an alarm for them. We have to bear in mind that these spontaneous and massive reactions led to the fall of two governments. But by contrast, going back to the comparison of the two squares, burnt out banks and burnt out small properties did not produce political results. It is very simple: where you had fires, big business could find some small business owner to cry.

And now?


Now there is an ebb in the movement, a relative political recession. People now expect sharp political changes and place more hope in a political confrontation with more results. That is why in the two elections in May and June we were unable to win. That too created a type of tiredness. It is tough to see that neither were there any results in the sense of change.

What is the desirable path for the left coalition?


The only path is to bring down the government through a democratic route. We have a responsibility that we are conscious of: a large part of the population placed its hope in the alternative project and we must reinforce that objective. But this is both positive and negative for us. People expect a great many things from us.

Is that the positive thing?


Yes. And the negative is that they deposit their hopes and merely wait. The risk of passivity does not just exist when one is in opposition. Even in a future government we cannot set about a truly alternative option without popular participation.


What are you now doing to resolve this?


The first thing we are doing is to keep telling people. And we are going to continue as with before the last elections, with people’s assemblies in neighbourhoods, in big cities, and in workplaces. We also ask people to take part in strikes and to be part of the labour and union movements in operation. At the same time we are building a major social solidarity network. Within the crisis, any social movement is also very political. But we also want to create a collective social consciousness. Not philanthropy. It is social consciousness. These networks can be the nucleus of a new mass social organisation, which in turn can be the nucleus of great social changes.

I heard that you were worried by neo-Nazism in Greece. What level of popular hold do the neo-Nazis have?


It is a very sad occurrence. This political context was born within the destruction of the society’s social cohesion, in combination with terror and fear. At the same time with difficulties. In this context the large masses of immigrants appear as a scapegoat.


From where?


In recent years Greece became a prison for immigrants. In Europe we have Dublin II, the famous treaty, which ‘protects’ countries of the north and centre of Europe. That creates a buffer of immigrants in Italy, Spain and Greece. In our country a large part of the border is water. They are islands. There are major mafia organisations that bring immigrants through Turkey especially. The majority, when they arrive, have already walked thousands and thousands of kilometres. They come from countries at war or from nations that have endured dramatic climate changes….They sell what they can to mafias, who transfer them in boats like sardines in a tin. When they get to Greece they are placed in centres. Then they are set free. They do what they can to survive. But they are very susceptible to manipulation by organised crime. Dozens of people live crammed into small apartments. There are places in Athens that are already ghettos. In these areas there are major confrontations. It is within this complex situation that the ideology of xenophobia and fascism is born. These ideas emerge from a real base.


The crisis in all its dimensions.


With the crisis this is multiplying. It is sad, because the Greek people has no racist behaviour. It is not in its tradition. It is a people of immigrants. How can it be racist? How can a people that organised anti-fascist partisans allow neo-Nazi movements to grow at its heart? That is why we have a man of 92 years of age, Manolis Glezos, who was a guerrilla fighter and who was in the Greek parliament to give history lessons.


Do peoples learn from history?


History is written by the winners. It remains to be seen whether that History is the true one. But we want to keep the historical memory of our people from generation to generation in the construction of a collective social consciousness. Greece suffered a lot because it is a vital territory. In the last century we had two examples of heroic battles. First, the resistance in the Second World War, when the National Liberation Front was very close to coming to power and the invasion of our country did not permit it. Second example, the resistance against the Dictatorship of the Colonels, between 1967 and 1974. That has a very strong historical weight and we will proceed ahead with that beacon lighting our way.

By whom do you feel accompanied in Europe?


Europe is undergoing a phase of transition. We are facing the mutation of social democracy into a pure neoliberal force. It is leaving an immense political void because it is breaking off its traditional ties to large layers of society. These are the layers that made social democracy hegemonic. Syriza was born in large part within that political void. In the rest of the south of Europe we will have that same journey, but perhaps at a slower pace. That is why our European alliances begin with the left of the left and end to the left of social democracy. The strongest allies on the European continent are the social movements and those that convince people every day that austerity is not the way. There is where our alliances begin.


It must be a temptation in Greece to be inspired by classical figures.


Mythological or real ones?


I don’t know. It depends on one’s taste.


Let me pick a mythological figure then: Hercules. When the gods punished him, one of the labours of Hercules was to clean up shit. He spent months and months clearing it out. He finished his work. Then they charged him with another task: he had to cut off the head of the hydra. The problem is that when he cut off one head another two emerged. That happens with the international financial system. We have to clean up the shit and confront the hydra. That is why we have to build a great political force: because it will not be easy.

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