The CUP: up to its neck in politics

  • January 31, 2016

Movement & Mobilization

In giving up its capacity to act as an independent force, the CUP is repeating a familiar theme of leftist parties getting bogged down in institutional politics.

In Catalonia, one of the biggest controversies in the anti-capitalist social movements over the past few years has been the major detour made by a part of the movement, away from autonomous, self-organized projects, away from confrontational protests that directly try to reclaim space, and into the institutions.

Anti-capitalist movements here commonly reject electoral politics, and with plenty of precedence. When the Franco regime needed to democratize to be able to join the European Economic Community, the socialists and communists formed parties, shook hands with the fascists, and awaited the elections that would bring them into power, in a “Transition” that allowed many Francoist institutions to remain intact. The fascist repressive apparatus, now in the hands of self-styled democrats, was turned loose on all those whose struggles had been instrumental in forcing an end to the regime, and who had refused to enter into a pact with the devil.

More recently, and specific to Catalonia, the historic leftwing party of the Catalan independence movement, ERC (Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya) entered the tripartite government that ruled the Generalitat—the Catalan semi-autonomous regional government—from 2003 to 2010. In order to share power with the other two parties—PSC (Socialist Party) and ICV-EUiA (Green Party-United Left)—ERC abandoned its commitment to Catalan independence and watered down its social programs to the point that they could practically be considered yet another neoliberal party.

In my first introduction to Catalan politics, when I moved here in 2007, anti-capitalist Catalan independence activists referred to ERC as “rats”. They had betrayed their history and betrayed the movement. The youth organizations at the time, though they were hierarchically organized, eschewed electoral politics and focused on building anti-capitalist movements through protests, outreach, and educational and cultural activities.

The widespread rejection of political parties was also evident in the plaza occupation movement that swept across the Spanish state in May 2011. Parties were flat-out unwelcome, and while the more populist sectors of the movement constantly redirected people’s attention to institutional reform, the radical sectors—typically those with more experience in the streets—tried to emphasize exactly the kind of activity that had already been going on for years: the self-organization of autonomous spaces and initiatives, opposing and sabotaging capitalist development projects, and directly reclaiming space so that decisions about what our neighborhoods and what our lives look like would never have to pass through a governmental bureaucracy.

Many of us continue to build a different kind of power, one that is decentralized, self-created, always in people’s reach. However, the inability of open assemblies and plaza occupations to deliver short-term change led to a widespread disillusionment. People decided once again to put their faith in electoral politics, leading to intense and often bitter debates in anti-capitalist movements.

One new party in particular has succeeded in unifying anti-capitalist activists, capturing the national spotlight, and attaining a substantial chunk in recent elections.

I am not referring to Podemos, which has become something of a media darling for the international left. Non-English-speaking friends here are shocked when I tell them this, since it is nearly impossible to find activists, of any stripe, who think of Podemos as anti-capitalist or take them seriously as anything other than a lesser of several evils.

I am talking about the CUP (Candidatura d’Unitat Popular), a party that makes its decisions in assemblies and includes environmentalists, feminists, socialists, leftwing Catalan nationalists, communists, libertarian municipalists, and even a few wayward anarchists. Their main point of unity is their commitment to Catalan independence, while the interpretation of that goal is also their main source of discord.

One sector, based around the group Poble Lliure, favors political independence first (a new state for Catalonia) as a starting point for social transformation, whether that be socialism or just a reduction in austerity. In practice they have no qualms about interclass alliances—joining forces with the Catalan bourgeoisie—and they seem willing to postpone their social programs indefinitely.

The other sector, based around the socialist organization Endavant, insists that political independence and social transformation must go hand in hand. Though their vision of socialism looks a lot like the gentler capitalism that social democracies have always offered, they at least have principled criticisms of Catalan capitalism, and they have been a committed presence in the streets.

In 2012, the CUP participated in Catalan parliamentary elections for the first time, winning 3 seats out of 135. In the municipal elections the year before, they received 2 percent of the total, but a few concentrated bastions of support were enough to give them the mayorship of four small towns. They substantially improved in the 2015 municipal elections, winning 7 percent of the vote, enough to take 13 town councils, including the small city of Berga.

Their tenure was unremarkable, although we anarchists did criticize them for several policy decisions, most notably their support in Berga and elsewhere for the civic behavior ordinances, a set of racist and classist laws first authored in Barcelona under advisement from ex-mayor of New York Rudolph Giuliani, and since exported across the Spanish state. The main function of the laws is to establish more governmental control over the use of public space, essentially “cleaning up the streets” for the tourists.

I could also mention that the building I currently live in, together with a number of old retirees, single mothers, and immigrant families, is slated to be demolished, thanks to an urban development plan approved by the CUP. No hard feelings, though: what government doesn’t imprison, torture, exploit, despoil, and evict, no matter what its affiliations?

In their defense, supporters of the CUP could mention a number of achievements. Their representatives have been disciplined public servants, honoring their commitment to limited salaries and refusing to profit off their positions (at least in monetary terms). They have also opposed several environmentally destructive development projects, though thus far only on a symbolic level.

In any case, the CUP’s early experience in government lacked drama. They did not revolutionize electoral politics, nor did anarchists’ faint criticisms cost them any support. Their real nightmare began when they got a true taste of power.

In the September 2015 parliamentary elections, they got 8 percent of the vote, and with it, 10 representatives. The big winner, Junts pel Sí (“Together for the Yes”), was actually a coalition between the conservative party, CiU, in power since 2010, and ERC. As a sometime ally ERC had already proved compliant to CiU’s breakneck austerity policies; their main point of unity for forming the coalition was a commitment to winning independence for Catalonia.

The big problem for the CUP is that Junts pel Sí didn’t win an absolute majority. They would need another party to support them in order to form a government, and all the other parties big enough were firmly “espanyolista”—Spanish nationalist or at least anti-independence. They would need the CUP.

The CUP had no problem supporting Junts pel Sí on questions of independence—the “unilateral declaration of independence” which leading politicians had promised. However, their votes would also be needed to reinvest Artur Mas as the president of the Generalitat.

In the electoral campaign, the CUP had promised that they would never support Mas, the leader of CiU, and that they would push for an anti-austerity, anti-poverty “shock plan”.

Now that they were in a position of power, the CUP did the logical thing: look for bargaining room. What was less than typical, however, was their format. A normal political party would have simply revised their campaign promises in as discreet and opaque a way as possible. The CUP sent their promises back to the base to be reviewed in a series of territorial assemblies. One after another, these assemblies tended to reinforce the decision that the members of the CUP would not support Mas as president. But as the process dragged on, exceeding three months of negotiations and meetings, the media and the other political institutions stepped up the pressure.

Until a coalition government could form, the proposal for the unilateral declaration of independence could not be resolved, and the Spanish government could not decide what posture to take regarding its rebellious subordinate. From the left and right, people started to mock Catalonia and mock the CUP, that the future of a country had to be decided in an activist assembly.

Finally, the CUP leadership decided to pose the question to a “National Assembly” of its entire membership, held in the city of Sabadell. The two factions—the one around Poble Lliure that supported a “yes” vote for Mas and the other around Endavant that supported the “no”—each accused the other of stacking the vote by signing up new members or bringing members up from Valencia to vote.

Basically, they were playing at democracy, using the tricks that all organizations seeking to gain power using electoral mechanisms engage in. The experiment in direct democracy by the plaza occupation movement was also full of the same sort of sordid maneuvers. Conveniently for both factions, the vote in the National Assembly was an exact tie (at least, that is the official story), so neither side had to make their accusations of fraud overly public.

The decision was passed off to the Political Council, which met behind closed doors on January 3. The entire country waited in suspense as they deliberated. Their final vote, 36-30, resulted in a “no” against Mas. From one moment to the next, the media dropped their tone of impatient ridicule and began excoriating the CUP, filling entire newspapers and roundtables with diatribes against the irresponsibility and selfishness of the “anti-capitalist wing” of the party.

The CUP’s romance with the media had lasted less than two years.

As an anarchist, I watched with great interest when the corporate media first allowed the CUP into the club of official discourse-makers and legitimate institutions. It was on May 1, 2014. Up until that moment, all the mainstream media coverage relating to the organization treated them as a marginal curiosity, or made fun of their counterculture aesthetics and their practice of making decisions in assemblies. On the whole, the media tried not to mention them at all.

It was after the traditional anti-capitalist riots of May Day that I first saw the CUP mentioned as a respectable figure of politics and a legitimate representative of the establishment. Multiple media outlets made special mention of the fact that the anti-capitalist protest was able to reach a peaceful conclusion under the leadership of the CUP after police succeeded in driving anarchists off the streets.

From that moment forward, the media regularly mentioned them as a legitimate and respectable party, and their leaders became household names. In the subsequent riots to protect the squatted Can Vies social center, they were given special weight as negotiators and peacemakers.

In a moment of increasing social conflict and rebellion, the establishment recognized the CUP as the perfect mediator, with one foot in the movements and one foot in the institutions. Given a little more power, perhaps they could be the force finally capable of taming Catalonia’s embroiled streets?

Simultaneous to this process of recuperation, the state (both the Spanish and Catalan governments) had decided to reframe their internal enemies. Whereas before the category of exclusion was the vague “antisistemas,” an ill-definied mishmash that included antifascists, anarchists, squatters, and leftwing independence activists, now the anarchists alone were defined as the new public enemy.

The strategy of repression was also clarified, as the state engaged the machinery of its extensive anti-terrorism apparatus. Starting in 2013 but especially picking up pace in the fall of 2014, anarchists experienced wave after wave of arrests. The police and media spoke with one voice, creating the specter of anarchist terrorism out of thin air.

This simultaneity is no coincidence. Granting legitimation and participation to a far-left political party required demonizing and severely repressing any more radical position on the political spectrum. The price of an ostensibly anti-capitalist, pro-independence option in the official politics was dozens of doors knocked down in the early morning; computers, cash, phones, and literature stolen; the ransacking of anarchist social centers; a widespread smear campaign in the media based on patent lies; and over sixty organizers kidnapped and held incommunicado for three days, some to be locked up and others released on restrictive conditions pending trial.

Once the CUP demonstrated that they would not give Mas their vote of confidence, even if it meant forcing new elections in an already unstable climate, the other elite institutions quickly revoked all their privileges. The fledgling party proved incapable of standing up to the shaming campaign skillfully waged by the media. Within a day, major cracks were already appearing.

Anarchists have often made the unpopular criticism that revolution is a slow, difficult process; therefore, easy solutions, an emphasis on quantitative growth, and the imperative of unity at all costs are worth precisely nothing. The only pragmatic solution is to spread critical consciousness, popularize the capacity for self-organization, and resist the centralization or institutionalization of the struggle. In short, quality over quantity, depth over speed.

The quality of the “Popular Unity” the CUP had built over an entire decade was put on display and proved lacking. Their number one deputy, Antonio Baños, resigned on January 4, as did a number of other high profile academics, journalists, and cultural figures the party had recently recruited.

Rather than showing any party discipline, the losing faction immediately began airing their dirty laundry on the open internet, accusing the winning faction of sabotaging the independence process. Anna Gabriel, the number two figure in the organization, and the most visible representative of the “anti-capitalist” faction, immediately became the target of an immense outpouring of hatred and derision, and not only from the rightwing and the mass media.

Members of the moderate sector of the CUP, on Twitter, regularly referred to her as a “whore” and a “witch”. This from within the bosom of the radical left, which has long included “feminism” within its points of unity (though more as a recruiting tactic than a reflection of a well developed practice, according to more radical feminists).

I have to admit I was surprised that the CUP, albeit by a slim majority, decided to stick to at least some of their principles and oppose the reinvestiture of Mas. Supporting him would have been a major betrayal. After all, Mas’s party is under investigation for corruption, they are the maximum representative of the Catalan bourgeoisie, and they are directly responsible for austerity measures in Catalonia, as well as runaway gentrification in the Catalan capital, Barcelona. Mas himself is the protegé of the conservative patriarch of Catalan politics, Jordi Pujol, who is under investigation for taking millions of euros in cash to banks in Andorra.

However, betrayal is exactly what political parties are best at. Nonetheless, the anarchist criticism of participation in electoral politics is more nuanced. We maintain, on the one hand, that institutions like political parties train their members see social problems from the perspective of power itself, rather than from the perspective of their own lived experiences or that of their constituents. This can explain CUP support for the hated civic behavior ordinances in the towns where they came to power.

But on the other hand, even if a party or a group of politicians or bureaucrats is able to maintain their principles, they will be automatically excluded from the workings of power by all the other institutions. This is exactly what has happened to the CUP. The media, academics, non-governmental organizations, and all the other political parties have closed ranks against them.

Institutions are structurally immune to changes of heart precisely because they operate in complex, mutually reinforcing arrays, because they develop their own subjectivity and identity—their own interests—and the power they deploy can only be used in an authoritarian, centralizing way. Even an entire institution that managed to adopt revolutionary goals would erode the basis of its own power, and eliminate its ability to influence the other institutions, the moment it tried decentralizing power.

For a couple days in January, it seemed like there would be new elections in Catalonia. It was obvious that the CUP would lose half or more of their votes, but at least they had showed greater loyalty to their base than to the institutions of power. And then they went and destroyed what little respect and support they still had, signing a humiliating deal with Junts pel Sí on January 9.

To give the media some rolling heads, they forced two of their deputies to resign, and signed an embarrassing acknowledgment of errors. They also gave two of their deputies to Junts pel Sí, giving the leading coalition the seats they needed to rule. The promise was that these two CUP deputies would vote with Junts pel Sí on any matter relating to forming a government and achieving independence, but the language is so vague, it amounts to a blank check (for example, failing to vote on a budget or another important legislation could also be grounds for the fall of the government, and thus a violation of the pact). In exchange for this, they agreed to support Carles Puigdemont as the new president. Puigdemont is another important figure from CiU, in political terms a clone of Mas.

In sum, the cost of this Pyrrhic victory was to cause a major split in the party, and then to throw away whatever good reputation the hardliners had for ethical firmness or unflinching bargaining. From being a key piece in the parliament, they surrendered most of the ability they had to act as an independent political force. And all for a new president whose principal difference with the old president is his haircut.

And what of the emergency plan against austerity and poverty? One might expect it to be a sticking point for a party that styles itself “anti-capitalist”. Though it was also a campaign promise, it wasn’t included in the deal.

At the end of the second week of January, Junts pel Sí proposed an emergency plan that has won the approval of an already cowed CUP. Total funding for the plan is 270 million euros, far short of the 7 billion that is estimated as necessary, in a country where poverty has swelled to 26 percent, with extreme poverty rising from 5 to 11 percent in the last five years. For example, additional funding for healthcare amounts to 96 million, just over 1 percent of the total budget of the Health Ministry, and not even enough to bring that budget back up to 2010 levels.

And never mind the criticisms of how governments measure poverty, or the dehumanizing, ineffective, and corporate-friendly ways in which they spend their budgets. That level of analysis doesn’t make it into the newspapers, and, concordantly, falls outside of the programs of the political parties.

The CUP may or may not come back from the grave. The more important question for me is whether people give up on the spectacle of electoral politics or whether they continue trusting in an alienated political class to solve their problems for them.

The CUP’s misadventure shows, yet again, that it makes no difference if the members of that political class came just yesterday from the social movements and the streets. The history of leftwing parties is a repetition on the same theme.

The Green Party in Germany met with the same failure attempting the “long march through the institutions” envisioned by the charismatic student activist, Rudi Dutschke. And radicals in those days only put their hopes in the Greens because the Socialdemocratic Party (SPD), inspired largely by Marx and founded in part by Liebknecht, had long since become an establishment standby.

The Communist Party in Italy or Greece, the Labor Party in the UK, and any number of other originally leftist parties hide the same histories of betrayal. And who can forget Syriza, the administrators of one of the most extreme austerity policies in all of Europe?

Compared with the likes of these, in fact, the CUP is both progressive and original. They use assemblies, and when it came down to honoring (some of) their electoral promises, even if it meant losing support, they decided to keep their word (sort of). But these innovations have proved wholly insufficient. In the end, decisions are still made behind closed doors, and elite institutions continue to exercise power over us, for their own benefit rather than ours.

If the myth of institutional change can be laid to rest once and for all, our prospects for the future will brighten considerably. From that point forward, we will enjoy exactly as much freedom and well-being as we can create for ourselves.

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Peter Gelderloos

Peter Gelderloos is an anarchist and author of several books, including Anarchy Works and The Failure of Nonviolence. He has lived in Barcelona for the last eight years, squatting and alternating between unemployment and precarious labor.

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