It’s about Changing Life. The Spanish ‘Democratic Revolution’ beyond Podemos

provisionart_03The Case of Spain

In a world shaken by growing inequality and recurrent economic meltdowns, the case of Spain has gained international attention as a paradigmatic example of the destructive consequences of neoliberal capitalism. At the same time, Spain has also stood out as a leading country in the construction of alternatives to a system based on widespread competition for financial and individual profit. Spain has a long tradition of Mediterranean sociability and political experimentation, which in the last years reappeared through a strong social movement against austerity and neoliberalism: the 15M or Indignados movement, which had a decisive influence on the emergence of the global “Occupy” wave in 2011. The transformative energy of 15M has been partly canalized towards new political parties and electoral platforms such as Podemos, Ahora Madrid, and Barcelona en Común, which stand serious chances of achieving institutional power. Perhaps, however, the spectacular rise to prominence of these platforms has reduced the visibility of the transformations that were already underway.

Two fundamental ways of organizing value (cultural and material) are in crisis in Spain: first, the power of so-called ‘experts’; second, neoliberalism as a way of life based on widespread competition.

Experts vs Anyone

There is a long tradition in every society that tends to establish a group of people ‘in the know,’ and another group ‘in the dark.’ In its ‘modern’ technocratic version it grants legitimacy only to those who participate in certain disciplines and institutions, which give them the title of ‘experts’. In recent years, the economic disaster in Spain has generated such a huge drop in the credibility of political institutions that it has begun to affect this hierarchical cultural system. This has driven many people supposedly ‘in the dark’ to trust in their own abilities to collaboratively construct the knowledge they need in any given situation, and effective answers to the problems that confront them.

One of the best examples of this is the Plataforma de Afectados por las Hipotecas, or PAH (People Affected by Mortgages Platform). It would be difficult to dispute that the PAH is one of the institutions most recognized for its legitimacy in Spanish society today. Its legitimacy has not been gained through the authority of ‘experts,’ but earned through the democratic processes of something we could call a ‘culture of anyone.’ The exceptional empowerment that the PAH inspires must be attributed, among other things, to its determined rejection of a ‘service’ model through which housing problems would be confronted with the aid of a series of legal experts, mediators, or activists being offered to an undifferentiated contingent of so-called ‘victims’ whose abilities and ways of knowing would not be relevant. On the contrary, the key to the PAH’s success – as noted by those who began it and maintain it day to day – is that everyone who is affected participates in the process of the struggle for all the cases, with everyone contributing his or her own kinds of knowledge and abilities, and themselves becoming advisers for other affected people.

This is not an isolated example. More and more since the occupied squares of 2011, we have seen these ‘cultures of anyone’ arising mostly around grassroots social movements and in collaborative spaces fostered by digital technology, but they are spreading to many other social milieus, including those traditionally reserved for institutional ‘culture’ and ‘politics.’ They tend to promote the idea that the people affected by or involved in a situation should be the ones to participate in changing it, but not from a perspective of ‘anything goes.’ Rather, they promote processes of empowerment and collaborative learning that allow the development of anyone’s abilities and knowledge base.

Neoliberalism as a way of life…

Through this creation of collaborative value, they also confront neoliberalism, which should be understood not only as a set of State or market policies, but also as a widespread way of life that pushes everyone into understanding and living our lives as if they were a competitive business company. As Dardot and Laval have explained, neoliberalism operates on many levels: “For more than thirty years, this rule of existence has dominated public policies, rules global economic relations, and remodeled subjectivity. The circumstances of this normative success have been described frequently, be they the political aspect (the conquest of power by neoliberal forces), the economic aspect (the rise of globalized financial capitalism), the social aspect (individualization of social relations at the expense of collective solidarities, with extreme polarization between rich and poor), or the subjective aspect (appearance of a new subject and development of new psychological pathologies)”.

…and how to get out of it?

This very omnipresence and monstrosity of neoliberalism has often been used to support the well-known argument of the ‘glass ceiling’ of social movements: movements would have reached the limit of their processing capacity, and it would be necessary to conquer political institutions to go further and stop the feet of the neoliberal attack. However, what the Latin American experience of ‘progressive governments’ (in Argentina, Ecuador, Bolivia, Brazil, etc) shows is that, in reality, it is unclear if it is possible for the State to depart from neoliberalism. The issue is extremely complex. But let me just ask this: is it not true that in some of the institutional platforms that have emerged in the Spanish state to curb neoliberalism there is a very important sensitivity towards the ‘politics from below’? This seems certainly true in Barcelona en Comú, which has worked hard to articulate itself with neighborhood movements—making its own the Zapatista motto of ‘caminar preguntando’— but also in Ahora Madrid and other municipalist platforms. Even with respect to Podemos, despite its drift toward a seemingly more statist populism and its flirtations with a technocratic discourse, I do not think one can say that the experience of collective intelligence and empowering of the 15M cycle is no longer relevant at all.

It is not so hard to imagine, perhaps, a ‘multilevel politics’ as the Argentinian Colectivo Situaciones says, or a network in which Podemos is just another node, and has to work with many other nodes of social movements and citizens, as Margarita Padilla proposes: a distribution of roles in which the takeover of the institutions would not involve an interruption of the creative possibilities opened by the movements to other ways of life, but rather its intensification. A non-‘state-centric’ politics, as has been proposed by Raquel Gutiérrez and Amador Fernández-Savater. Because, in the end, it’s about building ‘a good life’, about changing a way of life in which ‘experts’ and competition don’t have the last word, and perhaps that is something that State institutions cannot do on their own. As expressed by Débora Ávila and Marta Malo: ‘to break through the glass ceiling against which we often stumble, and to build the foundation for a good life, there are more ways than the electoral. Roads we travel and others that we must dare to make. Small realities, palpable, inhabited, to build an independent voice that can dialogue with institutions and demand they “govern by obeying”, but from a radical difference.’


*The images come from Provisionart

*The text is an adaptation of extracts from a book that will be published and made available for free online in June 2015: Cultures of Anyone. Cultural Democratizations in the Spanish Neoliberal Crisis