From “No to the war” to 15-M: social movements that are not social movements

Amador Fernández-Savater

Culture of the Transition

The journalist Guillem Martínez[1] coined the term Culture of the Transition (CT) to describe culture –in a wide sense: ways of seeing, doing and thinking– which has predominated Spain over the last 30 years, beginning with the defeat of the radical movements of the 1970’s (independent workers movement, counterculture, etc.).

Essentially CT is a consensual culture, but not in the sense that it reaches agreements by debating the disagreements, but rather that from the outset it imposes the borderlines of what is possible: democracy-market is the only acceptable framework for the coexistence and organization of the communal – end of story. The CT has worked for 30 years at imposing this “end of story” time and time again: “that is above argument”, “I don’t know what you are talking about”, “the past is the past”, “there is no alternative”, “it’s either me or anarchy” and so on.

Conflicts and problems represent potential rifts to the status quo and its division of places, tasks and power: who may speak and who may not, who makes decisions and who must simply obey them, which words are of value and which ones are merely noise, which proposals are viable and which ones are foolish, and so on. The CT is a profoundly de-problemizing culture: one cannot ask questions about other ways of organizing communal life above and beyond the authorized possibilities. Accordingly, it is also profoundly de-politicizing, since politics mainly consists of asking questions about the ways we can live together.

A consensual, de-problemizing, de-politicizing culture, for three decades the CT ensured its control over reality by means of a monopoly on words, subjects and memory. How words may circulate and what they should mean – in connection with what we should think and in what terms. It decided what we should remember and from which present day we should do so. For years this monopoly on meaning was mainly put into effect by means of a centralized and one-way system of information to which only the media had access, whilst the public acted as a passive audience and some subjects were untouchable.

The CT’s objective, its obsession, is “cohesion”. Its notion of cohesion is that every last one of us allows ourselves to feel identified with the role we have been given to perform: politics is for politicians; communication is the media’s job; the words of authority are a privilege reserved for intellectuals and experts; fringe alternatives are the terrain of social movements; and lastly, the war of everyone against everyone else is society’s secret law... Maurice Blanchot said “political death” is a situation in which we delegate all our capacities (of thought, expression, decision) to a “power of salvation”[2]. The CT is this power of salvation –its form of political death is cohesion and its authority to classify and distribute social roles is based on fear management.

The CT’s power has gradually faded over time. On the one hand, the fears –of a military coup, ETA terrorism, a divided Spain– administered and exploited by the CT as “power of salvation” have gradually lessened and diminished. On the other hand, the collective rights associated with the Welfare State, which were also part of the consensus, have been progressively lost (privatization, cuts, general precariousness). The CT is increasingly viewed as the real source of contemporary perils as opposed to protecting against them.

This disenchantment with consensual culture, which has a long history and has been expressed in a thousand different ways over the years (from the phenomenon of the vote of abstention to social movements), has organized the 15-M [15th of May] as a fully central (as opposed to fringe), mass event occurring in society. On the one hand, it is a defiant, explicit and noisy rejection of the politics of politicians (of every colour). Its most representative chants and slogans are “they don’t represent us” and “they call it democracy, but it isn’t”. It no longer comes as a surprise to anyone that politics has been reduced to managing the fluctuating needs of the global economy.

On the other hand, it is a practical and positive experiment exploring the slogan-statement democracia real ya [Real democracy now] in meetings, occupied places, and all kinds of social networks. The power struggles have been replaced by active listening, the construction of collective thought, awareness about what everyone is building together, a generous trust in the intelligence of fellow strangers, a rejection of majority and minority blocks, the patient search for all-encompassing truths, a constant questioning and re-questioning of the decisions taken, the privilege to debate about the process and the effectiveness of its results, to name a few.

Social movements that are not social movements

Although 15-M is the biggest breach we have ever seen to the CT’s wall, it has its precedents. Other movements have posed questions from below about shared life, disputed the meaning of what is happening (to us), brought other pasts to the fore, proposed alternative images of coexistence and self-represented them in their own images and words, and thereby evaded the filters of politics and the media.

The gestures and words with the greatest power of political importance in recent times have invariably come from unexpected and quite unforeseen places and groups: examples are the actions of the puppeteers during the Goya Prize ceremony in 2003, the SMS messages which brought crowds together in front of the PP’s, conservative party’s, headquarters on the 13-M [13th of March], 2004, the speech delivered by Pilar Manjón, the anonymous email which led to the V de Vivienda mouvement in 2006 or the recent tweet rebellion against the Sinde Law. On each of these occasions a strong critical viewpoint was cleverly expressed in order to avoid criminal proceedings, social issues were questioned without giving voice to politicians, and marginalization or corseting –political, ideological– associations were eschewed. Being anybody, talking to anybody and shouting like anybody. Who was the we of “No to the war”, of 13-M, of the V de Vivienda or of the fight against the Sinde Law? Everybody and nobody – a variety of engagements could be found together in open spaces working politically on solving common problems. Radical action never crops up where it is expected and today that is truer than ever before.

The politicization modes set in motion by these movements do not tally with the modes of social movements – old or new. They are not roused, managed or led by militants or activists, as is the case with squatters, the civil disobedience or anti-globalization movements, but by people with no prior political experience; they do not take their strength from a programme or an ideology, but rather from a simple personal connection with something that is happening; they do no identify with the Left or the Right of the political chessboard of the CT, instead they elude this option by proposing an open, all-inclusive, non-identificatory we in which there is room for anybody. They do not seek to destroy this world in order to build another, but rather to defend and enjoy the only world we have against the people who would spoil it, unlinked to any global utopian or alternative schemes for society.

Social movements that are not social movements, maybe we could better describe them as Unidentified Flying Objects. Not easy to detect by the radars of traditional critical thinking due to the lack of purity in what they say and do, to the difficulty of including them alongside alternative or anti-system social movements. A few of us, devoted abductees, have been tracking them for years. This wave of atypical politicization crashes around the 15-M.

“No to the war”

What lit the spark of the massive protest against the Iraq war? Where did it come from? The strength of “No to the war” came from the fact that it repeatedly overwhelmed traditional forms of protest: the number and variety of people involved, the languages and ways of taking the streets and the appearance of unforeseen political actors.

The official Left and its news media amplified the upset, repulsion and anger. They did not, however, create, induce, rouse or provoke it. The alternative Left offered meetings, dates and places where this malaise could be expressed and organized. It did not lead, shape or give it voice. “No to the war” politically activated a countless number of pre-existing forms of sociability, revolving around affinities, kinship, lifestyles, etc. The protest penetrated the whole of society. It was impossible to marginalize or criminalize the protests by identifying them as the actions of “extremists” or “anti-system groups”. This profoundly radical, decentralized, common ground unexpectedly set the CT’s basic notions about citizenry, democracy, participation, political representation, legality, public space, and so on, which had seemed so firmly rooted, into crisis.

The mobilization was not centralized, instead it was completely undefined. The “politicians of war” were hounded wherever they appeared. The workplace was transformed into an impromptu debating room. Across the city, demonstrations were prolonged in unforeseen ways, unable to let the streets go back to “normality”. Numerous slogans were invented for the occasion: the famous red and black stickers were to be seen scattered around on a daily basis, posters were displayed from balconies, groups of friends or pupils from the same school produced their own banners, the slogans (“No to the war”) provided a common place where there was room for everyone. Perhaps, the epitome of this overwhelming process was a boy in Arganda del Rey who shouted “No to the war” during a meeting with Aznar [Spain’s Premier at the time] only to be forcibly removed from the venue. In short, it combined the interruption of the monologue of power, the spontaneity and unpredictability of protest, the anonymity of its participants, a touch of “apolitical” naivety or innocence and the hysterical backlash of the powerful.

Out of this rich magma some new collective assemblages of enunciation also emerged, as was the case of the Cultural Platform Against the War. The unusual Goya prize ceremony worked as a real rallying cry at the beginning of the mobilization: criticism had come from where it was least expected. Later on the Platform, which grouped together artists of all kinds and conditions without distinction (actors, technicians, musicians, etc.), was established. This group of culture workers played an important role in performing, with “natural” ease, some of the gestures that had a profound influence on the style and the imaginary of the demonstrations, namely the protest inside parliament, the banners with the faces of conservative MPs at the head of one of the big demonstrations, black balloons of mourning which floated towards parliament at the end of the demonstration which coincided with the entry of the American army in Iraq, etc. Unidentified political actors.

“We were all on that train”

Proving wrong the view of those who were in a hurry to bury “No to the war”, the power of those demonstrations resounded with events that took place in the wake of the terrorist attack in Madrid on 11-M [the 11th of March].

After the attack, the CT mustered together like a single tough man (gathering its notorious “sense of State”) to keep everything under control. Although the slogan of the official demonstration, organized by the State on the 12th of March, was "With the victims, with the Constitution, for the defeat of terrorism", its implicit meaning was: "Everybody with its representatives”. Nevertheless, 11-M did not become another 9/11. Quite the contrary. The state of siege affecting the news failed to work, racism did not flare up, the security argument did not convince and the line dividing friends and enemies was erased. Fear was unable to keep streets deserted by appealing to the “power of salvation” –which is the CT– instead common people went out to express their grief and to protest not allowing its form or content to be dictated, thus scuppering the monopoly on feelings and challenging political death.

The hierarchical arrangement of the venues and acts of the CT was suddenly revoked: politicians lost their faculty to represent, the street refused to be silent, the media was unable to mould “public opinion” and emotions could not be relegated to the sphere of privacy. For a moment, society was not primarily defined by “every man for himself”, but rather by sensitive feelings about what we have in common.

A massive taking control of words shook the monopoly on words. Words of grief, of support, of criticism. Mixed, delocalized and wide-ranging words. Slogans, poems and messages written in every imaginable kind of media, place and language. In improvised shrines, in the streets and online. This taking control of words overwhelmed the authorized channels and their pet-words for representation. At the top they talked about “Spain”, on the ground they said “all of us are Madrid”. At the top they spoke about “the fight against terrorism”, on the ground they said “peace”. A discordant multiplication of the word not arranged in traditional group forms of trade unions, political parties, community associations or social movements.

Against the monopoly of subjects, automatic reactions were challenged and questions were posed from the ground: “Who did it?” Suddenly, it became perfectly clear the type of cohesion constantly demanded by the CT: that of troops or a herd united by their fear of the enemy. But the enemy on the 11th of March was indeterminate. Was it ETA, al-Qaeda, Basque nationalism, radical Islamism, or Arabs in general? The fact was a (“illegal and unlawful”) war was being fought in Iraq. The fact was the Spanish government had supported it and sent troops. The fact was that it had shamelessly lied about the causes of that war. The fact was that almost half the victims of the terrorist attacks were immigrants, many of whom were Arabs. On the streets the name of the 13-M enemy was radically turned about: “the enemy is the war”, “Madrid=Bagdad”.

Against the monopoly of memory, thousands of impromptu shrines sprung up everywhere, while the official minutes of silence were deserted. Nobody was willing to let others prescribe what they should feel, nor when they should express it. This very clearly reflected a profound, massive need for open channels of communication and interchange free of the filters of politics or the media. Quite simply all the power of the CT (its politicians, media, experts and rituals) did not help anyone to freely think and feel about what was happening. In this way a whole culture was engulfed by crisis.

“You’re never going to have a house in your whole fucking life”

An anonymous email spread like wildfire across Internet for months. It called on people to come to demonstrations and sit-ins in the main squares of Spanish cities on the 14th of May in 2006. The objective: to protest against the catastrophic situation of housing in Spain. Thousands of people felt involved and went to the squares.

It was not a centralized call and it had not been arranged by any major group or organization. The call was not to protest against an enemy; it simply expressed a state of malaise, a problem (“Mortgage = life imprisonment”). To express this malaise, in Zapatista-like style, they used words, like “decent housing”, devoid of explicit political meaning. The sit-ins avoided politicization and pigeonholing the subject to Left against the Right or vice versa (“A chalet like ZP’s [Zapatero]”, “A little flat like the little prince’s”). They engaged with everyone and they were well received by the public (smiles, applause, and patient reactions to road closures). They did not resort to the more imperative “don’t look at us, join us”. They went to pains to avoid confrontation with the police, even after the brutal police charges which took place during the second week of the sit-in in Madrid and the arbitrary arrests that followed them (“your children have mortgages too”, demonstrators shouted at police). Irrespective of its power to draw people, it did not put itself in a ghetto and this helped to spread the joy.

The movement chose a jokey name: V de Vivienda [literally: V for Housing], in reference to the comic and the film V for Vendetta. It did so because its aim was to avoid being named or represented or even identified. V de Vivienda had no deep meaning; it was just a funny name which –precisely because there was nothing special about it– allowed everyone to be involved. The well-known war cry of V de Vivienda, which had a very big impact on the social imaginary, was “you’re never going to have a house in your whole fucking life”. It was a slogan which broke the common sense associated with other slogans frequently used by social movements: it offered no hope at all ("yes, we can"), it offered no future ("for a future without poverty") and no alternatives ("another world is possible") it did, however, pinpoint and bring to light a collective malaise, which until that moment had been experienced –and suffered– in silence and alone.

If what happened in the wake of 11-M activated the underlying imprint of “No to the war”, likewise 13-M demonstrations have an evident effect on V de Vivienda. A self-called, self-organized protest, it invented slogans on the spur of the moment and was jubilantly regarded as an accessible space welcoming anonymity and plurality – a horizontal place in which there were no fights over the authority of its slogan. Its unity was based on listening to one another, since it was clear to everyone that the important thing was not what each person brought individually from their homes, but rather what they could create together. It was a mobilization that sought to communicate, be copied, go viral and become widespread, and to question the common malaises underlying each individual’s identity.

“Online Freedom”

At the end of 2009, the governing socialist PSOE party announced its intention to approve the Sinde Law. The objective of this law is to allow a committee, dependent on the Ministry of Culture, to shut down file-downloading websites without a prior trial (simply with the authorization of a judge). The alliance between the cultural industry, the star-system, political parties and mass media companies to pass the Sinde Law reveals some of the power lines fuelling the CT. And the unprecedented struggle against it online and off, reveals to us the rise of a new social power which overwhelms its frame.

From the outset, the anonymous citizenry populating and constructing the Internet began to organize itself, without political parties or ideologies, to avoid the creation of an “Internet police” and to defend the Internet as a neutral, free and common zone. The struggle runs right through the classic political dichotomies such as the Left/Right axis and it brings people together behind a single concern: the future of Internet as a space of freedom and interchange. From the activist group called Anonymous to the Right-wing blogosphere, opposition to the Sinde Law was so massive and mixed it proved impossible to identify, isolate and criminalize. The culture of transversal cooperation transformed the obstacle of its differences into its strength for winning a particular fight.

To a large extent the strength of Internet is that it has no representatives. Here and there are a few influential people (bloggers, lawyers, etc.) who operate like reference points and who are occasionally invited to discuss things with the politicians of the moment. But they are simply occasional spokespeople for a collective intelligence. They do not think of themselves as representatives of the Internet and its users. They are perfectly aware their legitimacy is due to the fact they know how to listen to what is happening on the Internet, they publically convey the changes going on beneath the surface and they (in the words of the Zapatistas) “give orders while obeying”. This is the exact opposite of what Trade Unions do in the world of labour. A union is a fixed, established and self-referential representation which subtracts and undermines the power of the represented. As Margarita Padilla explains, today’s struggles no longer need a vanguard to lead the way, but rather groups which provide political tools and waive their control over them. Activistic groups such as Hacktivists and Anonymous, which played an important role in the fight against the Sinde Law, act precisely in this fashion – they design and set in motion unfinished devices and let others act and make decisions, invariably trusting in the intelligence and independence of each individual node on the Internet[3].

Despite the fact that the Law was rejected by Parliament, that its wording was very dubious from a legal and technical point of view, that the cables released by Wikileaks revealed it was the consequence of pressure from the USA, that it was being challenged by a massive social response, the governing PSOE socialist party insisted upon passing the law and finally managed to do so thanks to the votes of the PP conservative party and the CiU Catalonian party. The Law, however, is utterly delegitimized and dead on arrival and its approval reveals to everyone not only the basic unity between Left and Right with regard to the CT, but also a combined insensitivity towards public opinion when it refuses to be exploited, not to mention a disdain for any political participation outside of the established channels evident.

15-M: The art of vanishing

The CT is a power of representation, classification and de-politicization. Against it the social movements that are not social movements use “the art of vanishing”. I am not referring to a style of disappearance, but rather to the sfumato technique which Leonardo made famous: blurring the outlines of shapes to achieve a misty effect in the work of art. This is the secret behind the famous mystery of the Gioconda: a rebellion against the sharpness and precise lines which predominated the academic painting of the day, a positive acceptance of uncertainty and ambiguity, and a readiness for changes and the unexpected. To vanish is not to become invisible or to build realities on the fringes, it implies to appear blurred: to camouflage oneself in the rules of the game in order to break them from inside; to blur the identificatory divisions in order to cross over sociological and ideological boundaries that separate us on an everyday basis; to create a protective mist against the labels stigmatizing or criminalizing us. That is also part of the strength of 15-M: its power of non-definition (or of blurring).

The movement blurs the traditional opposition of reformers and revolutionaries. Taking over all the squares in Spain is the most radical act since the self-arranged demonstration in front of the headquarters of the conservative PP party on the día de reflexión [the day before the general elections] on the 13-M in 2004. Paradoxically this mass challenge is built upon very simple resources: non-violence, the idea-strength of respect, de-politicized and humanistic language, accessible to all, the search at all cost for consensus, positive treatment of the police, etc. Without the element of conflict, the movement would be just another nice “alternative” lifestyle. Without the empathetic and all-engaging tone, just another small, separate “radical” group out of touch with reality.

The movement blurs the classificatory power of stereotypes. Stereotypes are a technique and strategy used by governance. They seek to separate protestors from the rest of the population, as though they have nothing in common. “You see, they aren’t normal, they’re violent, hippies, anti-system, in short, wolves in sheep’s clothing”. These stereotypes distance us from each other. They prevent us from reaching a joint space of recognition. They replace sensitive understanding with a prefabricated –and generally disparaging– image. They avoid things, all sorts of things, from affecting us. However, the 15-M protests proved to be very intelligent in this aspect and from the beginning employed time and ingenuity in defusing the alluring power of labels dividing the common people: “we are not anti-system, the system is anti-us”.

The movement blurs the borderlines between inside and outside. The people who camped in Sol knew from the start that their strength was outside Sol. In other words, that their strength was in a living link to what a friend of mine calls “the motionless part of the movement”, namely the people touched and affected by Sol even though they have not taken part in the camp directly. The camp in Sol did not seek separation and this is why it created so many channels of solidarity inside and out (already by the third day of the camping an announcement had to be made asking the people of Madrid to stop donating food because there was nowhere to store it any more). It was never planned as a utopian “outside” or as another possible world, but rather as an invitation to strangers to come together as equals to join the fight.

The demand for clarity and precise description which predominates politics is at a loss when confronted by 15-M. Is it PSOE or PP? Left or Right? Libertarian or Social Democratic? Apocalyptic or integrated? Reformist or revolutionary? Moderate or anti-system? Neither one thing nor the other, in fact quite the opposite. The nature of the movement raises as many intriguing arguments as the Gioconda’s smile. There is no answer to the (police’s) question about identity: who are they? What does the 15-M movement want? 15-M is a political anti-political force: the mouvement pose radical questions about the ways of organizing communal life that overstep and disrupt the political chessboard of the CT. It is necessary to assign it an identity in order to neutralize the power of questioning: “it’s them”, “they want this”. Politicians and the media pressurize 15-M to become a “reliable delegate” armed with proposals, programmes and alternatives. They know an identity loses its power to ask questions; an identity takes its place on the board (or aspires for one). It is transformed into a predictable factor in political calculations and power relations. It becomes governable.

Old politics conspire inside and outside the movement to bring an end to the power of its indefiniteness. From outside by means of repression, media coercion, an insistence that “you must define yourselves” in order to be a serious political player; from inside by means of the fear of nothingness, a fetishism for results (as though the results were not already contained in the process itself), the urgency in the rhythm of the demonstrations, as well as ideological elements that would like the movement to be more explicitly something (a social movement, a Left-wing movement or a revolutionary movement).

Consequently, “haste and definition are our enemies”, as was observed at a meeting in Sol.

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[2] Maurice Blanchot, Escritos políticos, Madrid, Acuarela, 2010.