The day after: the movement beyond the protest

by Carlos Delclós on January 14, 2012

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As our movement transforms from a protest into a new social climate, promising signs are emerging of a new cooperative form of social organization.

By Carlos Delclós and Raimundo Viejo

In his famous speech at Occupy Wall Street, Slavoj Žižek offered the people in attendance (and curious internet users around the world) an important warning in the form of friendly advice: “don’t fall in love with yourselves. We’re having a nice time here. But remember, carnivals come cheap. What matters is the day after, when we will have to return to normal lives. Will there be any changes then?” For the indignados of the 15-M movement in Spain, the general election results of November 20th marked the start of the metaphorical day after.

That the right-wing Partido Popular would take an absolute majority of the government with only a minor increase in votes due to the spectacular disintegration of popular support for the outgoing Partido Socialista was no surprise to anyone, especially the indignados. What may have surprised some, however, is the relatively low intensity of mobilizations since the right wing took office and, slowly but steadily, announced that they would implement the same neoliberal policies and violent austerity imposed by technocratic regimes in Greece and Italy.

As Amador Fernández-Savater recently put it, the questions on a lot of peoples’ minds seem to be: “where are all those people who occupied the plazas and neighbourhood assemblies during the spring? Have they become disenchanted with the movement? Are they incapable of making lasting compromises? Are they resigned to their fates?”

Fernández-Savater doesn’t think so. “With no study in hand and generalizing simply based on the people I know personally and my own observations of myself, I think that, in general, people have gone on with their lives … But saying that they’ve gone on with their lives is a bad expression. For once you’ve gone through the plazas, you don’t leave the same, nor do you go back to the same life. Paradoxically, you come back to a new life: touched, crossed, affected by 15-M.”

And as he so eloquently puts it, 15-M is no mere social organization, but “a new social climate.” But how does a social climate organize itself? What new possibilities have revealed themselves after months of self-management, cooperative civil disobedience and massive mobilization, and what remains to be done?

Over time, the wave of mobilizations that first hit the shores of the Mediterranean and extended outwards over the course of 2011 has overcome its initial, expressive phase. This phase managed to substitute the dominant narrative with our own. We now know that the problem is not some mysterious technical failure we call a crisis, but the intentional crimes of a cleptocracy.

This distinction is crucial: while the first suggests a management dilemma that opposes left- and right-wing approaches to the crisis, the second draws a line between the 1 percent who abuse power in order to steal from the people and those who refuse to consent and choose to resist in the name of the other 99 percent.

Having reached this point, the obvious question becomes, “Now what?” Of course we should continue to protest together, especially if we choose to do so intermittently and massively, favouring a general critique of the system over particular causes. And at the smaller scale, that those specific struggles continue to take the streets is also desirable.

However, it is fundamentally important that these struggles are not overly disconnected from one another or the more general movement; that they unfold beyond their own spaces (hospitals, schools, factories, offices and so on) and into the broader metropolitan spaces of cleptocratic dominance. These processes serve to keep the questions that guide the movement alive and, therefore, adapting to the always changing situations in which they operate. Yet the question of what alternatives we can provide remains.

The conquest of political power, particularly in liberal democracies, is not the most important task of social change. Political change tends to occur once social changes have already taken place. Thus, if what we desire is to change existing social relations and inequalities, it makes little sense to prioritize a change of political power with the hope that social change will be installed from above.

Instead, the first challenge, as John Holloway once put it, is to “change the world without taking power”, to build and strengthen the alternative institutions of the commons. By institutions, of course, we are not referring to the institutions of a political regime such as parliaments, executives and the like. Nor are we referring to those which may lie between the regime and the movement, such as political parties, unions or other organizations.

We are referring to institutions which provide a foundation for the movement and are defined by their own autonomy: social centers, activist collectives, alternative media, credit unions and co-operatives. Institutions like these constitute no more and no less than material spaces in which we can articulate the values, social practices and lifestyles underlying the social climate change taking place all over the world.

In many places, these alternative institutions are already under construction. In Catalonia, the Cooperativa Integral Catalana, which serves to integrate various work and consumption co-ops in the region through shared spaces, education, stores, legal services, and meetings, already has 850 members, thousands of users and has inspired more “integral co-ops” all over Spain.

Meanwhile, in the United States, 130 million Americans now participate in the ownership of co-operatives and credit unions, and 13 million Americans have become worker-owners of more than 11,000 employee-owned companies, six million more than belong to private-sector unions. Over the coming weeks and months, we hope to explore some of these alternative institutions and the possibilities they open up for the 99 percent.

In their seminal work Empire, political theorists Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri examine the way in which a cleptocratic empire controls people through what Michel Foucault called biopower: “a situation in which what is directly at stake in power is the production and reproduction of life itself.” In many ways, this is the force we are defeating when our experiences together in the streets, the plazas and the assemblies inform our daily lives and our decisions in the long run.

The spectacular moments we share are an exhilarating, fundamental source of energy for the movement all over the world. They are also fodder for a sensationalist mainstream media which devours events to leave us with the superficial scraps of headlines, sound-bites and riot porn.

But the revolution is not being televised precisely because it is happening inside and between us. We are moving too slowly for their sound-bites because we are going far, wide and deep. And, if we play our cards right, we will be in control of our time, our work and our lives before they know it.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

dave January 15, 2012 at 20:48

Great piece, but sentiments such as these have been expressed at least as far back as Robert Owen, and here we are reiterating them two centuries later. People have left the “plazas” and the commons fundamentally changed throughout the capitalist era without it making much of a difference. So much has been said on this topic without, I fear, getting any nearer to the riddle’s solution.

But the struggle goes on…

And I like riot porn.

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Carlos January 16, 2012 at 22:45

Thanks for reading, Dave. I understand your opinion on this, but I don’t think we should be so quick to write off ideas just because other folks have had them before only to run into historical reality. Democracy has been tried several times before too, but we keep trying to improve that as well through different approaches, drawing from different experiences. And historical realities change. That’s their thing.

I would also resist the temptation to write this off because I really do think there are some significant differences in where we’re at historically. We have rapid communications and, with that, the possibility of obtaining much more, much better knowledge than in past historical moments of what’s being tried in different places, the problems they’re running up against, the types of actions that work and so on. This knowledge carries with it not just new memes or ideas for actions both offensive and defensive, but new legitimacies that challenge legality and the status quo. I can’t think of a time after the industrial revolution in which the status quo has been so clearly illegitimate in so many places; almost no one believes neoliberalism improves living conditions anymore. Almost no one believes capitalism and democracy go hand in hand. And according to recent surveys, even the vast majority of Americans acknowledge that there is little if any meritocratic logic behind who gets to be in the 1%.

So even if there’s no grand moment in which we topple the Man Behind the Curtain in the name of The Perfect Regime, or whatever cinematic moment we’ve been conditioned to expect, we will have made progress if we can develop cooperative, democratic alternative institutions in ways that empower people, provide for them and open up new fields of possibilities. And of course, I think this should happen with substantial changes beyond these efforts (food sovereignty, quality public services that guarantee universal social rights such as education and health care, etc). But I think it’s going to be awhile before we get there, and it’s going to take this kind of day-to-day work. It’ll be rough, maybe less spectacular than riot porn, but I’ll take that over succumbing to cleptocratic rule anyday.

Oh, and there’s nothing wrong with riot porn as long as it doesn’t keep you glued to the couch (or computer) and fantasizing ;)

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Kindlewell January 17, 2012 at 10:40

I would suggest we take the May15/Occupy movement into every neighbourhood across the world – embedding the May15/Occupy movement deep into every locality, while sprawling across the planet. We do this as a matter of urgency.

As you point out socio-economic conditions are more fundamental than trying to reform a shallow, corrupted political system. To borrow a phrase from anarchist educator, Ivan Illich, we have to set up our own “convivial institutions.”

I would suggest focus on four key institutions – independent media, an alternative educational set-up, a convivial banking system and a shift towards a gift economy.

I might add a 5th point of action – repatriating land back to the common wealth and appropriating empty buildings for the social good.

Consider education, for example. It is conceivable we could have free (and convivial) social media centres, film-making schools, music studios, performance arts centres and so on in every community – yet all the ruling class toss to us from their tables of privilege and wealth are the scraps of meager youth centres to wile and waste our time away playing pool or whatever else. Back in 1970, Ivan Illich proposed an educational skill/resource sharing network – which is much more feasible now with the internet. Or consider banking. Over 150 years ago, the anarchist, Proudhon, who recognized the primacy of social and economic structures, attempted to establish a people’s bank to uproot Capitalist power at its source. Again with the internet, it is conceivable now that we could have our own Occupy/May15 bank for the people – even our own bartering currency – or whatever else is needed.

How do we achieve this? Firstly, we need a social & economic network on the internet – which mirrors a network in real-life – where each community has a page/space and each individual is allowed a personal page/space if they so want. We must consolidate the connections of Occupy/May15 ready to advance. Such a network would allow real-life neighbourhoods to communicate, share resources, skills & ideas, and exchange the fruits of our endeavours & spread the benefits to all … a path towards a new convivial economy. With such a network, we can really make the shift in the direction of a gift economy. For example, as well as being a teacher of various subjects, I have several other skills – I can do websites and publish books – which I am keen to share with other convivial spirits or those in need, but not with selfish Capitalists or war-mongerers. Another reason why this network is vital – in order to link our various gifts and actions.

On the one hand, we need to unshackle ourselves from Capitalism and opt out where we can, circumventing the tentacles of malign Capitalism. We can do this by working in our own communities, establishing convivial institutions there, while globally connecting our communities and the many isolated individuals on a social and economic network – a convivial alternative to the corporate Facebook.

On the other hand, the Capitalist system enslaves us, controlling our basic resources (and thus autonomy and fulfillment of our basic needs) by robbing us of our natural right to freely take a prime piece of land where we can make free use of surrounding resources and thus prosper by our own endeavour. Not only does Capitalism rob us of our share of natural resources, but our share of our cultural and technological heritage – the fruits of 10 000 years of human civilisation that belongs to everyone equally.

Thus, in part we can circumvent much of Capitalism’s hold over us, but never wholly without confronting the beast. A confrontation with the structures of Capitalist power is unavoidable. But it can be done with non-violence. So in sum, we must advance with the new social and economic network, and set about precipitately building convivial institutions in our communities. And when our numbers are sufficiently swelled and we are better prepared, we must confront the system head on. I think a global revolution is in order. We are late at this stage of history… not too late I hope.

** In case you are wondering how we confront power head on with non-violence on our part. Suppose the US/ Israel/ NATO powers attack Iran or support such an attack. We can counter this if we can mass in great numbers as happened in the lead up to the unprovoked US attack on Iraq. But this time, we should storm our parliaments in our millions and from all directions (or march on the homes of the ruling class) in order to carry out a citizen’s arrest. Another reason why we need a network of neighbourhoods everywhere and now.

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dave January 25, 2012 at 21:10

C, I haven’t written anything off, just pointing out that everything above, particularly the millenarian stuff, is modern updates of very old themes.

re “I can’t think of a time after the industrial revolution in which the status quo has been so clearly illegitimate in so many places…”

Have to disagree with you there. The period just after WW1 is the high point of both class consciousness and a general disgust with the status quo. It is in this period that capital introduced Fascism whose purpose, imho, was to provide a different interpretation of socio-historical phenomena besides class struggle. And while that term is no longer employed by its creators–Fascism as an advertising jingle is dead–the themes they introduced into academic discourse, radical and otherwise, are very much stil with us. They have been heart-breakingly successful in quelling specifically proletarian revolutionary dissent, to the point where now a movement whose slogan is ‘we are the 99 percent’ is still predominantly pro-capitalist.

K, love everything you said but I think Lenin’s critique of this strategy has proven to be prescient. It has never worked in the past, but that doesn’t mean that it won’t in the future. I’ve long advocated an ‘advance on all fronts’ strategy, as we will probably never know which straw will be the one to break capital’s back.

Nice discussion. thanks.

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