The Skin and The Theatre

This is a translation of an essay by Amador Fernández-Savater. It was published on 16th October 2015 in eldiario.es, amid growing anticipation with regard to the Spanish general elections that were held in December. It explores how electoral politics takes shape as a spectacle, and explores the consequences for struggles against neoliberalism. It maintains its relevance in the present.

The skin and the theatre: exiting politics

Amador Fernández-Savater

 

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‘There has never been so much talk about politics as there is now!
‘And so little about life…’

(A conversation with friends, in the ‘year of change’)

How might we understand the fundamental nature of the political management of this economic crisis? I think we can find inspiration in an authority on neoliberal matters such as Margaret Thatcher. In 1988, the Iron Lady said, with absolute frankness: “Economics are the method; the object is to change the heart and soul”.

It seems to me that it is from precisely this viewpoint that we can best think about the policies that have been implemented in Europe since 2008. It is not merely a matter of introducing cutbacks or severe austerity measures in order to “come out” of the crisis and return to the point we were before, but rather of radically redefining ways of life: our relationship with the world, with other people, and with ourselves.

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Seen from this angle, the crisis is the ideal moment for undertaking a process of “creative destruction” of everything, in institutions, in the social bond and in subjectivities, that stands in the way or defies the logic of growth and neverending output: whether it is what remains of the welfare state, formal and informal mechanisms of solidarity and mutual aid, non-competitive or non-productivist values, and so on. By destroying or privatising public systems of social protection and driving down wages, a state of indebtedness and a no-holds-barred struggle for survival are incentivised. Out of this emerges a type of individual for whom existence is a constant process
of auto-valorisation. Life itself is turned into work.

Does this sound too abstract, too conspiranoid, too ‘metaphysical’, even? On the contrary, it is completely banal and everyday, and that is why it prevails. To give one possible example among thousands: what is entailed by the Royal Law-by-Decree 16/2012, which was approved by the Partido Popular and which excludes tens of thousands of people from medical care? Activists from Yo Sí Sanidad Universal, who fight against it daily, explain it to us like this: it does not mean there will be fewer X-rays or fewer surgeons. Rather, it is a qualitative change, whereby health is no longer a right for everyone, rich and poor, but instead depends on whether you have insurance. The decree is the method, but the object is to reprogramme society’s imagination regarding the right to health. That is, we are to incorporate, as an everyday way of feeling and thinking, through changes that very often pass unnoticed (talking about ‘having insurance’, having to go to the Social Security Offices to pick up one’s medical card), the terrible fact that health care from now on is a privilege of those who deserve it. And we are to act accordingly: war of all against all, and each to his own.

 

The skin…

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In this perspective, one of the most politically interesting moments of recent years was just at the end of the 15M camps. That is, when the immense quantity of energy that had been concentrated in the space-time of the squares spread out and metamorphosised through the different domains of life. First neighbourhood assemblies are set up, then come the mareas [tides] formed in defence of public goods and services, the PAH [Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca – Mortgage Holders’ Platform] grows and multiplies, and seething and swarming into every corner come a thousand capillary initiatives: co-operatives, urban farms, time banks, solidarity-based economic networks, social centres, new bookstores, etc.

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Let’s say that the 15M event spread a kind of ‘second skin’ over the whole of society: an extremely sensitive surface in and through which one feels as one’s own what happens to others unknown (the clearest example was no doubt the evictions, but let us also recall how the struggle of the Gamonal neighbourhood was greeted by society); a space of the highest conductivity in which various initiatives proliferate and resonate upon one another without referring back to any central binding entity (or at any rate, to open umbrellas such as the terms “99%” or 15M); a nameless lamina or film in which there circulate unpredictable, ungovernable currents of affect and energy that joyfully cut through established social divisions (be these sociological or ideological), and so on.

We would be wrong in thinking of this ‘second skin’ in terms of the classical concepts of civil society, public opinion or social movement. In any case it is society itself that has begun to move, creating a climate of politicisation that does not know any inside and outside, above and below, centre or periphery, and so on.

Why, then, would this be a particularly interesting moment? Because it is when we took up the challenge laid down by neoliberalism (as synthesised so well in Thatcher’s dictum) both in its breadth and its intensity. The struggle is over desirable and undesirable ways of life, and the fight takes place in every corner of society, without privileged actors, times or places.

In every hospital threatened with closure and every school notified of cutbacks, in every neighbour under eviction and every migrant at the door of a health centre without a medical card, the question of how we are going to live is at stake. And this is not on a rhetorical or discursive level: it is practical, made flesh and palpable. What matters to us and what we are indifferent to, what appears to us as decent or indecent, what we tolerate and what we can tolerate no longer. Do we want to live in a society where anyone can die from a bout of flu, be thrown out of their home, be left without the means to educate their children…?

Open skin, extensive skin, intense skin. Against the war of all against all and the ‘each to his own’ fanned necessarily by the logic of profit above all else, the common dimension of our existence is activated: solidarity, care and mutual aid, bond and empathy. Against the passivity, guilt and resignation sown by the strategy of shock, there is a contagion everywhere of a strange joy: “we’re fucked but happy”, a friend said to me in the midst of those days of assemblies and mareas. Happy to share discontent instead of swallowing tears in private, to turn it, even, into potency of action.

In a very short time, this “change of skin” achieved some truly impressive feats (that only the stubbornest of gazes refuse to see): the delegitimisation of the political and cultural architecture that had been dominant in Spain for decades, the transformation throughout society of the perception of key issues such as evictions, concrete victories in the case of Gamonal [a neighbourhood uprising against the construction of a boulevard, leading to demonstrations of support throughout the country], the white marea [against health service privatisation] or Gallardón’s abortion law, the neutralisation of the emergence of macro- and micro- fascisms that is always a latent possibility in times of crisis, and so on. It is not down to having any kind of power (whether institutional, economic, or media, or other) but rather its strength to alter social desire, to spread a different sensibility and expand new affects horizontally. This sensitive strength is, and has always been, the power of the powerless.
…and the theatre.

Where are we today, with regard to all this? The predominant reading of the impasse that the post-15M movements entered towards the second half of 2013 highlighted that they had hit a ‘glass ceiling’: the tides hit against a wall (the institutional lockdown) but this wall does not give way. There is no tangible change in the general orientation of macro-politics: the evictions go on, as do the cutbacks, privatisations, impoverishment and so on.

This diagnosis came with its own prescription: the electoral route was set forth as the only possible way to go beyond the impasse and break the ‘glass ceiling’. First came Podemos, and then the municipalist candidacies, to channel (in very different forms and styles) social dissatisfaction and the desire for change in that direction. (In Catalonia it seems to be the independence process that diverts/railroads discontent, but analysis of this situation is beyond the reach of this article and this author).

How might we interpret the results of this ‘electoral turn’? My reading and the feeling I get are ambivalent: we won but we lost.

We won, because with hardly any resources or structures, and despite the campaigns of fear, the new formations have competed successfully with the big machines of the classic parties, and have undone an electoral map that appeared immutable. There are now reasonable hopes that the new governments (municipal ones for the moment) might crystallise basic demands of the movements (with regard to evictions, cuts etc) and alter some of the normative frameworks that reproduce the neoliberal logic of competition in different areas of life.

We lost, because what has been reinstalled in society’s imagination are the logics of representation and delegation, centralisation and concentration that were called into question by the crisis and the impetus from the squares.

Let’s say that the centripetal force of elections and all that goes with them has folded this skin into what we might call a ‘theatrical heap’, that is, a kind of (material and symbolic) space organised on divisions of inside/outside, actors/spectators, pit/stage, stage/backstage.

To sketch it out very roughly: a way of doing that is highly rhetorical and discursive, that brings to the fore the ‘most capable players’ (leaders, strategists, politicians), polarised around very specific spaces and times (the electoral conjuncture, the future time of the programme or the promise) and focused upon winning over public opinion (the famed ‘social majorities’), has taken the place of a way of doing that was based far more upon action, within the reach of anyone, that unfolded in times and spaces that were heterogeneous, self-determined and attached to the materiality of life (a hospital, a school, a house) and directed towards other people, not as voters or spectators, but rather as accomplices and equals with whom to think and act in common.

If 15M placed the problem of life and ways of life at the centre, the ‘assault on the institutions’ has once again placed at the centre the question of representation and political power. And each option has its implications. The inside/outside division installed by the theatre involves a reduction, in terms of breadth and intensity, that weakens the fight against neoliberalism.

On one side: what remains outside the walls of the theatre loses value and potency, and winds up cut short and devalued. To give a very clear example: the movements are the object of mere rhetorical reference or are interpreted as claims or demands to be listened to, synthesised or articulated by a higher entity (party, government), thereby completely erasing their essential dimension of creating of a world in the here and now (new values, new social relations, new ways of living). The theatre renders absent what it represents. And in this way the living relation with the creative energy of the movements is lost.

Podemos General Secretary Pablo Iglesias in the Puerta del Sol, Madrid, on the March for Change, 31st January 2015 (source: eldiario.es\Marta Jara)

On the other side, what is seen outside the theatre comes projected from the inside. Here I mean something very concrete and everyday: the complete occupation of the social mind (thought and gaze, attention and desire) with what is taking place onstage. How much time of our lives have we wasted lately speaking about the latest act of one of our superheroes/heroines (Iglesias, Monedero, Carmena, whoever)? With the new politics, the plays and the actors are changed, there are new sets and scripts, but we go on just as reduced as before to spectators, commentators and reviewers in front of their screens, thereby losing contact with our centre of gravity: ourselves and our problems, what we are prepared to do and what we already do, the practices we invent more or less collectively, and so on. Hypersensitive to the stimulation that comes to us from above, indifferent and anaesthetised to what is happening around us (closed skin). And it is useless to criticise the theatre: one goes on focusing attention on it, even if it is to be against it.

 

Re-opening the skin

neoliberalismo

To recap. Neoliberalism is not a ‘political regime’ but rather a social system that organises the whole of life. It is not a ‘tap’ that spills its policies downward that we can simply turn off by conquering the central spaces of power and representation, but rather a dynamic of production of affects, desires and subjectivities (“the object is to change the heart and soul”) from a whole range of focal points.

The electoral-institutional route brings with it its own ‘glass ceilings’. And perhaps it is this that we can learn from the tragic soap opera of Syriza: within the established frameworks of accumulation and growth, the room for maneouvre for political power is very limited. And turning toward other models (think about degrowth, for example) cannot be ‘decreed’ from above. Rather it requires an entire redefinition in society of poverty and wealth, of the good and desirable life, that can only be generated from below. Hence to constitute power by dissolving strength (passing from the skin to the theatre) is catastrophic. It is always new processes of subjectivation, new changes of skin, that redefine social consensuses and open up what is possible, for governments as well.

 

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It is a matter then of reopening our skin (yours, mine, everyone’s). At an intimate level, this demands that each person resists the capture of attention and desire, of thought and gaze, by the logics of representation and spectacle. The theatre is erected every day by the deathly marriage of political power and communications media (including, unfortunately, alternative media, also hypnotised by ‘the conjuncture’) but all of us reproduce it, in any conversation among friends or with family, when we allow the frame of our questions, preoccupations or options to become organised: populist or movementist? confluence or popular unity? This guy or that guy? We need to reverse this centripetal movement and flee [in Spanish, fugar] from any centre – centri-fugue. To retrieve our bearings. To start from ourselves. To look around.

On a general level, it is a matter of starting once again with experimentation at ground level and at the level of ways of life: thinking and trying out new collective practices, inventing new tools and instruments so as to maintain and expand them, imagining new maps, guides and vocabulary for naming and communicating them. The impasse of 2013 had a lot to do, if we look within what we were doing and not merely outside (the impact in terms of political power) with the radical inadequacy of our schemes of reference (forms of organisation, images of change, etc) to go along with what was happening.

To rise to the challenge posed by neoliberalism entails deploying an ‘expanded politics’: not reduced or restricted to certain (media or institutional) spaces or certain times (the electoral conjuncture) or to certain actors (parties, experts), but rather in the reach of anyone, attached to the multiplicity/materiality of life situations, that creates values capable of rivalling the neoliberal values of competition and success.

Of course, this is and will be a long road, difficult, frustrating at times, but also real and in this sense satisfying. Because the promise made to us from the stage about a ‘change’ that demands nothing of us except going out to vote for the right party on the day of elections is a bottle of smoke.

The word ‘politics’ itself perhaps no longer goes far enough to name something like this. It seems to always betray us, by displacing the centre of gravity towards power, representation, the State, politicians, the theatre. This is not a matter of a change of regime, but rather of feeding a multiple process of self-determination of life. Politics is the method, but the challenge is to change our souls and our hearts.

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