Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Talking Municipalism in Minneapolis (Part Two)

This is a long read (4000+ words), the second of two talks I gave in March, 2017 in Minneapolis to a group interested in the Spanish municipalist movement. We're hoping to do more on this question and strategies in the U.S.A. come warm weather... No normalization! Not one step back!

The affective dimension – This is what we artists and art historians are better at.
I only squatted twice in my life – and, to be precise, it was occupying, not squatting. The subsistence level of my life was not involved. The motive in both cases was political.
Still I remember both occasions very well, even though they were very brief, only hours long.
The experience of collective disobedience, of stepping outside the frame of the legal, the permitted, the allowed, of violating norms and expectations is indelible. Intoxicating. Unforgettable.
Where does it lead? It is always impossible to tell for sure. Transgression is experiment.
A massive political and social experiment lies behind the contemporary political movement in Spain called “municipalismo,” or municipalism. That experiment was 15M, the long-term encampment of the central plaza of Madrid, the capital of Spain, by activists and citizens collectively called “indignados” – the indignant ones.

The occupation of the Puerta del Sol plaza took place in 2011 during a time period right before federal elections, when electioneering rallies are forbidden. The “indignados” were not electioneering. They were there to say that both parties, both the right and the left – “No nos representan”: they don't represent us.
Both political parties had caved to, or played along with a brutal austerity program enforced by the European Union. This shredded the social safety net, and led to double digit unemployment, especially among the young.
The surprise of the 15M encampment would change politics in Spain. But first it changed the people involved.
Luis Moreno Caballud, a scholar of classical Hispanic literature teaching at U Penn, was a participant in the 15M camp. He writes in his book Cultures of Anyone what this felt like.
(I paraphrase, interpolate and quote indiscriminately now from his epilogue) –
The movement of 15M was inclusive and hospitable. It sought to construct common spaces, spaces of encounter. The “indignados” were trying to change the way that citizens thought about representational democracy -- to interrogate its pretexts, and its pretensions, which are not true – and especially the conviction that capitalism is the only system possible.
In his epilogue, Caballud wishes he had written a different book, one which proposed tools for the democratic development of a common story, like the encounters and conversations he saw in the Puerta del Sol.
He laments the progressive erasure of forms of sociability that do not conform to the capitalist productivism we call ‘modernity.’ He observes the persistence of collective inferiority complexes among those whose ways of life don't matter under first the modern, and now the contemporary, say post-modern, cycle of domination. These cycles never repeat exactly, but tend to have the same result – precarity, immiseration, destruction of communities.
Then, quoting a number of authors, Caballud observes that the experience of the occupation, of daily life in the camp, this kind of voluntary temporary collective exile, built a “network experience a bit like LSD in the ’60s: a different, unreal but real experience that stays in your memory because you have actually experienced what you have experienced: the ability to converse with strangers, to cross borders, to self-transform, to easily create... In the plazas of the 15M, that experience [was] explored with an overwhelming passion. With much uncertainty, too, because it’s not clear where you’re going... [There was a] very strong impression of being cast adrift, so many different people in the same boat. The feeling that we could drown, that it could fall at any time, not because of the police but because of ourselves. Every day in [the Puerta del] Sol was a conquest, everything depended on us.”
This was not only a ‘political empowerment,’ but also an ‘expressive empowerment,’ which .
It was not only a series of demands to political institutions, but rather ‘a systemic approach that speaks of the possibility of a radical self-organization, of an existence without formal hierarchies, of forms of volunteer work and non-monetary economy, and community life where care is collective’ (236). A lifestyle that directly confronts not only the neoliberal logic, but also the monopoly of the production of meaning by the mass media, intellectuals, and the ‘experts.’
In Charmaine Chua's class they have talked about how political subjectivities are constituted by the state. [See my previous post for my talk to her class.] Caballud and his fellow 15Mers are speaking about how political subjectivity is constructed by disobedience to the state.
When I visited the camp of 15M in Puerta del Sol in 2011, I was unsurprised. Although I had not been involved in any way in this sudden eruption of a popular movement, everything was just as I expected it would be.
This was because I had been researching the squatting movement in Europe for years. I began in a way, in New York City in 1980, as an artist and an organizer, occupying a city-owned building for an art show with my cell of friends from the artists' group Colab. We ran a cultural center thereafter rented from the city for a few years, then handed it off to another group. The place still exists. It's called ABC No Rio.
During the early 1980s, we worked with another legalized occupation, a large former school building run by a Puerto Rican nationalist group called CHARAS. (This place was evicted by mayor Rudolph Giuliani in 1999.)
As an artist and organizer, and much later as an art historian of a Bourdieuvian slant, I was attentive to systems of cultural production – and, to be sure, to romantic radicalism in the tradition of Blake and Ginsberg. My attentions ultimately devolved onto the large building occupations called “social centers” after the 1970s Italian usage of the term by the Marxist workerist movement called Autonomia.
My European research picked up steam in 2009 when i joined SqEK – the Squatting Europe Kollective of researchers – at their conference in London. The group is still completing an EU and Spanish research council grant to make a comparison study of squatting in several European cities. The project, called Movokeur, has yielded I think astounding results in its quantitative aspects, producing squatting maps of cities which reveal deep layers of activism. It is the intention of SqEK, a group of mostly sociologists, geographers, and anthropologists, to prove that squatting in Europe is a social movement.
While academics may have been looking away, this has been obvious to activists for decades. The squatted social centers have been key centers for all sorts of grassroots autonomous extra-parliamentary political activism. In the 1990s and into the '00s, for example, the global justice movement organized through them. a fact first proved to this historian in 2006 by the files of international correspondence in the 56A infoshop in London. 56A Infoshop is an autonomous archive, a tiny space next to a food co-op where they still hold weekly squatting workshops, posting likely local empties, and dealing with the how-tos. (The Squatters Handbook has been published by the ad hoc paralegal group Advisory Service for Squatters in London since 1976. It is now in its 13th edition.)
I was unsurprised when I visited the 15M encampment precisely because it resembled the squatted social centers I had seen in different European cities during the several annual conferences of the SqEK group. As an engaged (if not exactly militant) research group, we had unusual access to the movement and its locations.
All this is told in my book "Occupation Culture," published in 2015 as a “scholar adventure story,” together with an anthology of squatter voices we made called “Making Room.” (That both publications are also available online as free PDFs is consonant with the “copyleft” ethos of open publication.) “Occupation Culture” is a book-length culmination of the “House Magic” zine project, 2009 to 2016.
Last year I had planned another book on the European squatting movement, more straightforward this time, with the intention of explaining the movement to a general audience through case studies of social centers in different cities. There are many fine examples throughout Europe, both north and south, of autonomous self-organization by political and cultural people in occupied spaces which later became public resources, enriching their cities. While these social centers are all pre-eminently local institutions (albeit of the “monster” type), they are regularly linked in inter- and national networks.
(And as an aside, besides one rump meeting, SqEK has not yet made it to the Americas. The Atlantic Ocean is a formidable barrier, and American squatting, both south and north, remains largely a dark mystery.)
With the election of Trump I have put this project aside. I believe it is more important now to focus on the broader spectrum of resistance strategies in cities, of which the autonomous movements provide rich examples.
Now, only resistance matters, resistance to a solidified federal and state revanchist power. And more, much more, resistance that builds and sustains popular power, both political and economic. Resistance that pushes past the dominion of wild capitalism and the new dispossession.
Squatting expresses the ideals of the commons, coming from a view of the earth and its built resources as a “common treasury” for all. Indeed, a key “monster” or citizen institution in Spain is called Fundación de los Comunes – the foundation of the commons – and operates out of a squatted social center in Málaga. The Fondacion organized a conference in the spring of 2014 at the Reina Sofia contemporary art museum called “The new abduction of Europe: debt, war, and democratic revolutions.” Political theorist Antonio Negri and housing activist Ada Colau were both featured speakers. (Significantly, this conference took place in an art musuem, a federal state institution, in a state controlled by the right wing Popular Party, a circumstance inconceivable in the USA.)
Ideas around the commons, like free information, flow throughout the European movements. (David Bollier spells out commons ideology in English on this “explainer” page, citing historian Peter Linebaugh's work on the Magna Carta.) “Commonsing” as a verb describes the project of squatting itself. Just as proper governance is for the public good, so ownership is stewardship. If improperly exercised or abandoned, it may be abrogated, either temporarily or permanently. The more legitimate expropriation is performed by collectives; the most legitimate is civic. So it is that groups of squatters reclaim public and private buildings neglected by their owners and return them to use. At times these places are recuperated by governance to full public uses.
The rise of 15M and Podemos-related municipalist governments in Spain has shown how imbricated the occupied social centers have become in government institutions and what the Spanish call “cycles of politics.”
This actually runs against the grain of the 30-year-old squatting movement itself. A first principle of the squatting movement is autonomy. Squatters want nothing to do with government or capitalist economy. This is absolutist, and it has preserved the ethos of the movement as a kind of secret society of anti-capitalist pirates, a brotherhood [sic] of social bandits. This has assured a certain continuity, as generations of squatters arise from the weeds of the city to continue the tradition of living free, and for free.
Similarly, in the USA, although there are almost no political squats, much political activism remains an adventure of youth. As people come to universities and colleges, they learn the facts about social, political and economic arrangements in our society. Many become politicized. Fewer remain so once they leave the warm waters of the class- and seminar room, ample public space for students, and the tolerant atmosphere of collegiate institutions. The modern consumer society, as the Situationist Guy Debord observed 50 years ago, is built on techniques of separation. It is chill waters for collectivity. The techniques of separation have only increased in the intervening half century, to the point of a screaming intensity that today binds us by social media to portable communicating devices so that we carry our separation – another analyst called it our “disperson” – with us everywhere.
How to overcome “autonomous interruptus,” the real world snuffing-out of political awakening?
European social centers have been bastions of radical knowledge, extending the useful life-span of activists considerably. In a short video of a dance through the Malaga social center called Casa Invisible, all the dancers are wearing masks to emphasize their anonymity. But you may observe a couple of tables 'round which cluster bands of serious people who can't be bothered with the masquerade of the music video. Those are the municipalists. They'll only dance and sing once the meeting is concluded.

Where Does "Municipalism" Come From?
I quote from a website called “United Explanations”:
“Municipalism refers to political organization based on assemblies of neighbourhoods, practicing direct democracy, which would be organized in a system of free communes or municipalities, as an alternative to the centralized state.”
Assembly. It's all about listening, listening and being heard.
For an American caught in the rat trap of U.S. politics, the “Municipalist Manifesto” reads like a document from an alien world. This document, which came out of a meeting held in Málaga, Spain, in July of '16 – the MAK-one – describes 'cycles of politics' and spaces of civic discourse that practically don't exist in our country. The guiding principles are expressed in its title: it is a “meeting for municipalism, self-government and counterpower.”
First the manifesto declares independence from political parties. The municipalist's roots are local. That is the “bet” on building this kind of power, that “democracy begins with the local.” (I refer to the title of a book by Pablo Carmona and the Observatorio Metropolitano called in Spanish, “The municipalist bet.”) Then the congregants name their issues – Spain's onerous balanced budget law, lack of housing, crushing municipal debt, and the necessity of reclaiming city services like water and power from the private companies to which they were sold by the right wing city governments in a coordinated campaign of corruption across the country. (Again, please note this important difference between Spain and the USA: What is in fact prosecutable as corruption in Spain is largely political business as usual in the USA.)
The municipalists aim to build a “federated network” of groups of political candidates (lists) and movements, and to support it with autonomous communications media which can construct “a new social common sense.” This unfolds on the internet, and its traces are clearly visible to those who look. Full transparency of government processes is also part of the new politics.
From the institutions they will expect resources and strategies to promote new movements and experiments – a “new institutionality” which – crucially – respects the autonomy of all such initiatives.
The manifesto goes on for 10 more points – on building social space, cooperative enterprises, protection of migrants and more. They also commit to internationalism.
This isn't cloud cuckoo land. These are concrete proposals, action items, which are backed up by a series of recent electoral successes in cities around Spain. The most visible and energetically internationalist of these is Barcelona en Comú which achieved the mayoralty of Ada Colau. They have published a guide to how to build a political movement in the city, “How to win back the city en comú,” and have launched an array of initiatives based on the notion of an “open code” city, that is, fully hackable by its citizens.
This success depended on earlier cycles of politics. These cycles have included the decades-long squatting movement that began after the dictator Franco died in '75. Those squatters opened up social centers in cities all over Spain. Barcelona, with its proud anarchist past, has quite a number of them both legalized and still resistant.
When the 15M arose, it was clearly understood by many activists as the Spanish part of an international “movement of the squares,” taking place in Tunis, in Cairo, in Athens, and New York. When the police finally moved against the 15M camp and the sprawling tent city was evicted, the activists had already begun their carefully planned move into the neighborhoods.
Even then their open assemblies in public places in the barrios were harrassed by police. So the assemblies of 15M moved into the resistant occupied social centers, and opened new ones. Thus, as Miguel A. Martínez writes, two movements converged. Punk concerts, beer-drinking gripe sessions, vegan dinners and bike fixing clinics were joined by regular open meetings of multi-generational neighborhood activists.
Curiously these assemblies joined up with neighborhood associations which had persisted since Franco's time. These groups, essentially security patrols organized by the fascist Falange, had become moribund in the years since '75. Now they came alive again, with new generations of citizens.
Spanish don't call their congresspeople. They are generally unavailable, and in any case people know that it's useless. As the European Union-mandated cutbacks to social services began to bite, enthusiastically enforced by the right, and apologetically by the left socialists, workers and clients in the affected sectors began to organize into mareas or “waves,” taking to the streets in parade, and occupying their workplaces. Health clinics and hospitals, public schools, social service agencies – Mareas arose all over the country, each in a different color: white (health), green (schools), orange (social service), blue, red, violet, yellow and black. These organizing committees became other sites of citizen activation.
Equally important for radicalizing citizens with grievances was the well-reported movement of the PAH, fronted by Ada Colau. In direct response to federal government refusal to repeal or substantially alter harsh and onerous laws around mortgages in the face of the long-term European recession called simply “The Crisis”, thousands of people were forced from their homes. The PAH movement organized these dispossessed workers and middle class people and began to occupy homes. Many of these homes were owned by the very same banks which had foreclosed on the mortgages, and were vacant because of evictions. The government foolishly 'collaborated' with the PAH, exacerbating the problem by selling off much public housing to private companies which raised rents to market rates.
Hence, the very regressive policies that punished the poor and less wealthy helped to set the conditions for building popular power. This is more than the power of anger to move people into the streets in protest. More than what MSNBC talking heads call “grassroots activism” to turn out and yell at right wing congresspeople. It's the power of solidarity to take back the necessities of life which the government and financial sector have been taking away.
How can the repressions and dispossessions, the abrogations of government responsibility to care and protect, which are arriving daily in the USA similarly be used in a mode of political jiu jitsu to build movements of popular power?
Contemporary Spanish municipalism came out of the 15M movement. The key issue – expressed in the slogan “They don't represent us,” was the “false representation” that political parties both left and right were undertaking concerning what is simply called the Crisis. This sustained, nearly decade-long recession has meant an EU-directed campaign of austerity, budget cuts, privatizations of public services, foreclosures and evictions. The big banks were bailed out with the people's tax money, and, in the words of the gilded age robber baron J.P. Morgan, as regularly and gleefully quoted by the Marxist geographer David Harvey, “assets return to their rightful owners.”
Anti-capitalist activists on the left in Europe have worked hard for years, often supported by the smaller political parties. The plurality of voices which parliamentary systems allow to speak (if not always act) within the circuits of power is foreign to the U.S.A., given its construction as a pseudo-monarchical republic along Roman lines. In the USA, the role of interrupter in the continuity of political transactions by conservative proprietors – the owners of those assets that have been returning – is taken by social movements, even at times in the past by criminal gangs. There is then a blockage in the paths to power in the U.S. which is only occasionally, and only partially overcome. When it is, it usually happens in cities. That's how Bernie Sanders started, as mayor of Burlington, Vermont. He did good. Just like the “sewer socialists” of Milwaukee in the 1930s through the '50s. They represented all the people and worked for the public good.
With its remnant welfare state and firm (if limited) civil liberties rigorously enforced, Europe's case may seem quite dissimilar from the USA. But this is a new Europe, under extreme political pressure from their enforcement of austerity throughout the union.
The U.S. version of what Mark Blyth calls “global Trumpism” appears to me to amount to much the same thing – a totalizing austerity, even if it doesn't go by that name. An ideological tsunami intent on wiping away the care economy, education, the research and cultural economies – anything deemed “soft” – and leaving only the “hard” bodies supported, the police and armed forces.
An anarchist tweeted as I wrote, “If we don’t prevent fascists from building strength, debate won’t matter. Only popular self-defense has succeeded in stopping fascism.”
That's true. And I agree. But it's possible to move beyond self-defense. The strategies of European municipalist organizing, action and electoral success – which arose during right wing governmental control – are echoed by Chokwe Lumumba's Jackson Plan for that city in Mississippi. Lumumba, a former lawyer for the Black Panthers, was elected mayor of Jackson, and his program follows along from the Panthers, without the Marxist-Leninist seize-the-state baggage.
In conditions of centuries of oppression, Lumumba's administration's plan, the Jackson Plan, was to build popular power, develop workers' cooperatives, and more. Why can't we now demand more from US cities politically more than just resistance, and a token resistance at that, to bad moves by federal power? With the mounting movement against a massively unpopular authoritarian president, activists can be in a position to get more and better now.
The question is what to ask for? And how to know what citizens need?
I'd suggest it might be un-capitalism.
There is an illustration from the book “Communitas” by Paul and Percival Goodman, published in 1947 which shows a huge bag of gross domestic product receipts. In the corner a small trickle comes out. That's what people need to live on. The rest is luxury...
When conceived, the Goodmans' image clearly relates to Keynesian economy, the post-World War 2 Fordist era bargain with the industrial working class that amounted to – “we'll take care of you as long as we can make our profits.”
This bargain is over with globalization. Capital can chase the cheapest labor all around the globe, and the folks at home, well, whatcha gonna do about it?
So what is needed – and this is consonant with the feminist leadership of Barcelona en comu, and many of the other municipalist platforms – is a de-capitalization of the subsistence economy, that is, an unhooking of capitalist and market logics from human reproduction, from the economies of subsistence and care.
Rather than anti-capitalist, as most radical leftists define themselves, I suggest that what is at work behind the broad social movements in Europe today is a demand – fully legitimate and not at all utopian – for a de-coupling of capitalist economics from the basic things people need to live.
For example, an important plank of the municipalist program deals with “remunicipalization” – returning city services which had been privatized, sold off the private corporations, to the public sector.
What people need to survive should be socialized. Subsistence today should not be the locus of profit. Leave profit to the realm of luxury.
With the advance of robotics and artificial intelligence (AI), and the consequent making-useless of millions of pathetically inefficient humans, this is only going to become more obvious.
Much of municipalist politics derives from feminist positions. While I cannot provide that geneaology, I will propose a reading of the notorious image of the "defiant little girl" in the Wall Street area. I know many really hate this statue. But I don't see this as a future female CEO preparing to ride the market bull. Nor do I see it as corporate woman-washing.
Rather I see this as una pequena toreadora – and suggest that it can be seen to stand for a girl as the woman to be, standing up for the future of the economy of care, for subsistence, for home, family, and its coherence, in the face of an over-excited bull which is going to rush into that china shop and ruin everything.
Both statues are at the bottom of Manhattan island, only a short distance from the original waterfront. The girl stands “upstream” of the bull, between the wild animal and the rest of the city. With luck and skill she can turn him in circles.

Afterword – In the near term, I hope that, working with comrades here and in Europe, we are able to order up and present some tools – examples of cultural, educational and political tactics, kinds of collective formations, and technological innovations that have and are being used to both seed and strengthen autonomy and collectivity in cities. Many of these tactics have been used specifically to build citizen participation in political movements that have brought concrete electoral results. Whatever we come up with, followers of this blog will hear about it.


One of many websites devoted to the movement:

For an anatomy of the movement, see the “15M-pedia”:

L.M. Caballud, “Cultures of Anyone” book PDF:< br>

Collaborative Projects artists' group:

ABC No Rio, NYC artists' space

SqEK group of researchers on squatting, most developed website is from the Barcelona conference website:

"Mapping the Movement: Producing maps of squatted social centres in Western Europe", from Trespass e-zine #1:

56a Infoshop is a volunteer-run, 100% unfunded, DIY social centre in Walworth, South London

Occupation Culture: Art & Squatting in the City from Below" by Alan W. Moore free PDF online:

"Making Room: Cultural Production in Occupied Spaces" edited by Alan W. Moore and Alan Smart, free PDF online :

"House Magic" zine downloads:

Fundación de los Comunes, locations in Spain:

housing activist Ada Colau; she was a leader of the PAH – See Ada Colau and Adrià Alemany, "Mortgaged Lives," PDF of the English translation, as well as a book on the tactic of recuperating houses:

Ideas around the commons; A Shareable website “explainer” on the commons:

Music video, "LIPDUB con Verdiales en la Casa Invisible" (5:18):

The Municipalist Manifesto (September, 2016; Eng, Span, Germ)

Pablo Carmona, "La Apuesta Municipalista" PDF:

“How to win back the city”: the Barcelona en Comú guide in PDF:

Analysis of Mark Blyth's description of "global Trumpism" with links to his talk:

Chokwe Lumumba's Jackson Plan

How to win back the city: the Barcelona en Comú guide in PDF:

Analysis of Mark Blyth's description of "global Trumpism" with links to his talk:

Monday, April 3, 2017

Talking Municipalism in Minneapolis (Part One)

This is a talk I delivered to an undergraduate political economics class in Macalester College, St. Paul, Minnesota in March of 2017.

I am here in Minneapolis to work on spreading ideas and tools around the municipalist movement in Spain and Europe. This will involve producing some publications for a U.S. audience which contain different perspectives on the development of popular political power in cities – how it can be done, and most importantly I think, how it can be thought. Citizens in the U.S. I believe have rather limited ideas of how political processes work and how they develop. These ideas are continually reinforced by the mainstream news media, and bound in by seemingly immutable laws of U.S. politics, i.e., representational government. Other worlds are not only possible, they have existed for quite a long while.

The first challenge for my U.S. comrades is to think past the problem of President Trump. In the USA, mainstream discourse suggests that our institutions, our democratic institutions like courts, the media, and just a general sense of what is, as the 18th century founders of the U.S. called “appropriate” attitudes and behaviors will hold this neo-fascist and his comrades in check until a new and more reasonable government can be voted in. The media reinforces the idea that at the top level of state power everything is going, well, more or less normally along. Trump is weird, but things are fine.
A large number of those activists who are making change no longer believe this. Trump is seen as a symptom that reveals the disease, a giant suppurating sore on the face of a system called neoliberal capitalism, which lets us know that the underlying process is very unhealthy. Indeed it is mortal for the planet.
Over 20 years ago, a movement called the Zapatistas in the Mexican state of Chiapas launched a defensive rebellion, a secession from Mexico, on the day the NAFTA free trade agreement went into effect. Independent U.S. presidential candidate Ross Perot said that once the NAFTA treaty was passed, you would hear “a giant sucking sound” as U.S. jobs went south across the border towards the low wage nations. We live with those consequences today. As bad as it has been for U.S. workers, Bill Weinberg wrote that NAFTA was a “'death sentence' for Mexico's Indians—who stand to be forced from traditional lands by agribusiness and development projects. Drawing inspiration from Emiliano Zapata's followers, who rose up elsewhere in Mexico in 1910 against a dictatorship that embraced free trade policies, the neo-Zapatistas were the world's first guerrillas to explicitly take up arms in response to a trade agreement.”

The Zapatista movement has had a strong and continual influence on the left in Europe and North America. How did this group of Mayan peasants in remote villages inspire activists in large Western cities? They were one of the first movements to use the internet as a media platform, so they were heard far and wide. Their charismatic, poetic spokesperson – he denied being a leader – Subcomandante Marcos specified their analysis. “Globalization, neoliberalism as a global system, should be understood as a new war of conquest for territories,” he wrote in 1997. It is a strange modernity that moves forward by going backward. “In the world of the post-Cold War, vast territories, wealth, and above all, a qualified labor force, await a new owner.” This, he said, is the “Fourth World War.” [Weinberg, URL, op. cit.]
The Zapatistas, called international meetings, “encounters” in their jungle home, and spread their message and tactics of resistance. Their primary tactic was to build what they called “counter power”: infrastructure for their people. Instead of trading bullets with Mexican federal soldiers, the Zapatistas accepted their military losses, and concentrated on building hospitals, transport and communications operations. They developed a fully articulated state within a state.
The Zapatistas' 1994 announcement inspired the Global Justice Movement. Also called the “anti-globalization” movement, these activists staged massive protests at the sites of international trade, finance and government meetings throughout the world, most held in cities.
Like the Zapatistas, their message was the terrible damage that global trade agreements were doing to local economies and social fabrics.
Today Barcelona en Comu, the citizens' party which has recently won the mayoralty of that city, is doing something similar, traveling around, and spreading the word about their electoral success in that Spanish city, and the tensions and strategies they are using as they govern. The Zapatistas, meanwhile, have announced they intend to field a female Native American candidate for president of Mexico.
So in both Spain and Mexico there is a turn to electoral strategies at a moment when it seems that social-minded localists may have enough votes to actually get some traction within a system of representational democracy.
But that is not where they started. The Zapatistas of 1994 walked their ideology and volition back to Emiliano Zapata, a practical revolutionary and general. In his brief term as a governor in 1910, Zapata redistributed fraudulently appropriated hacienda lands to the peasants, and allowed village councils to run their own local affairs.[Wikipedia, “Emiliano Zapata”] Although he was assassinated, today he is a Mexican hero. Marlon Brando played him in a film written by John Steinbeck.

Actually the idea of a revolution that begins in the countryside, in isolated villages, and ends up having a global impact and inspiration around the world is pretty unusual. The struggles of the Zapatistas, like their namesake Emiliano Zapata, are based in land and local autonomy -- keeping out exploiters and developers, international mining companies and the like, and protecting the traditional rights of peasant farmers, most of them Mayan, not Spanish-Mexican.
In contrast, the most consequential revolutions in the West for centuries have all begun in cities.
Boston, 1775, a thriving port of whalers and traders, and the flash point for the North American colonial revolution.
Paris, 1789, the capitol of France and site of its royal palaces, and the storming of the Bastille prison to set free political prisoners.
Paris again, in 1871, under attack by the Germans, the government running away, the citizens take over the city for a few brief months – called the Paris Commune. The government returns, and thousands of citizens are executed.
Petrograd, now St. Petersburg, 1917, the capitol city of czarist Russia, sees an armed insurrection turn state power to the workers' councils, the signal event of the Russian Revolution – (the centennial is this year).
And so on – Berlin in 1919, an uprising of reds called Spartacists suppressed at the government's request by the Freikorps, precursor of the Nazi SS.
Budapest, Hungary, in 1956, a rising against the communist government put down by the “friendly” Russian Soviet army.
The Watts district of Los Angeles in 1965, the National Guard called up to put down a revolt of African Americans incensed about police violence.
Paris in 1968, the most romantic of 20th century urban revolutions, with artists and intellectuals taking the lead.
Mexico City 1968, students demanding rights slaughtered by the hundreds in the central square of the city as the Olympic Games were about to take place.
Detroit in the same year, after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., a riot requiring the National Guard. Many other U.S. cities saw the same.
Beijing, 1989, the student and young people's encampment in Tianamen Square suppressed by the army and activists hunted down and imprisoned.
There are many many more of these major events. And I started arbitrarily with the touchstone of the U.S. revolution, one of the few which mainstream media delights to recall. That was not at all the first of such events.

Nearly all of these events, these revolts, uprisings and revolutions, found a context in severe political and usually economic crisis. In only a few did they result in substantive change in the form of government. But indeed, their failures – the fall of the Paris Commune; the failure of the Kronstadt rebellion of sailors and anarchists against the emerging Bolshevik communists; the brutal suppression of the Watts rebellion; the failure of Paris '68 even to bring down the president De Gaulle; the ruin of the hopes of the Chinese students – became in many cases the raw material for countless legends and family stories, tales of the hopeless love and sacrifice of so many people for freedom and democracy, and the fatal and life-shattering consequences when the authorities intervened.
The left revolutionary now really almost expects to fail. The quest for freedom is always a tragedy. The life of this increasingly tiny minority of political activists is a continual marination in bitterness and critique, with sporadic flashes of hope which quickly darken over. This is the texture of what we call the revolutionary imaginary.
What started to happen in 2011, however, was really rather different. It began in Tunis, capitol of Tunisia, and spread quickly to Cairo in Egypt. The Arab Spring of popular demonstrations, crucially started by women with cel phones, actually achieved results. They displaced dictators who had been considered invincible. (Moving forward, most of these uprisings, particularly in Syria and Libya, have had rather dismal outcomes – so far. The impulse to freedom of these populations will erupt again.)
When this revolutionary democratic movement spread to Europe, and then to the USA, it also had political consequences. In Athens, particularly in Greece, successive governments were brought down by good old fashioned general strikes, riots and street battles, until finally the Greeks ended up with a neo-socialist government called Syriza in power. That has been at the least a young more-or-less honest face on the national helplessness before the financial imperialism of the European Union and the implacable German banks.
Spain, also punished by the austerity of the crisis that followed the 2008 collapse of global credit, saw a massive encampment of the indignant ones – the “indignados” in the enormous central plaze of Madrid, the Puerta del Sol.
This was followed not too long after by another encampment in downtown New York City, the Occupy Wall Street. (Visiting Spanish, Arab and Greek activists were closely involved in that project, by the way.)
The first of these camps I saw was the 15M in Madrid, named after the day it was set up, the 15th of May. To me it all seemed very familiar. The camp was well-organized, with large tents for special purposes, informing the public of the aims of the occupation, welcoming new campers, cooking and serving food, taking care of injuries, cleaning and policing, a library, a children’s area, and so on. Why was it familiar to me? Because the organization of the 15M camp in the plaza, like Occupy Wall Street in the fall of 2011, followed more or less the way in which large building occupations have been carried out in Europe for decades. That's what I've been studying for more than 10 years – squatting, specifically squatting as a political movement.
Here I backtrack a little to Milan, Italy in the 1970s. A new kind of leftist movement emerged called Autonomia, theorized by dissident communist intellectuals. The activists of Autonomia came by their name because they were independent of the Italian Communist Party, which held many positions in government. The militants of Autonomia were made up of many southern Italian young people who had migrated north for factory jobs. The Autonomists called strikes without permission of the Communist union bosses. They carried out strikes on municipal services and commercial businesses in the form of direct theft – what they called “auto-reduction” of bus fares and organized shoplifting of food.

Most importantly for my story the Autonomists of Milan and other cities occupied empty factory buildings. (Italian capitalists were already moving their businesses to escape these rebellious workers.) They called them social centers – centros sociales. One of the first was Leoncavallo. The Leoncavallo social center was opened – or “kraaked” as the Dutch word has it – in order to provide social services that the government would not: health services, child care, food cooperatives, cultural facilities, all of them run by collectives of citizens who took these jobs upon themselves.
Leoncavallo was only one of dozens of social centers opened by the young immigrant workers and their allies in Milan. The idea quickly spread, first to other cities in Italy, and then to the rest of Europe. The city of Amsterdam in Holland already had a squatting movement since 1969, when the activists and hippies of the Dutch Provo movement started it. (The Provos, by the way, are another revolutionary group which moved into city government, after changing their name to the Kabouters.)
The example of the Italian Autonomist social center was very simple: to take a large building and create a citizens' center open to projects which anyone could propose, subject to the approval of an assembly of those who were maintaining the center. They called this self management auto-gestion. The places they squatted were called CSOAs, centros sociales occupados autogestionados in Spanish, which followed the Italian model.
Since the middle 1970s throughout Europe the example of the Italian social center has been imitated and refined. Generations of activists have found a new purpose in squatting – not only to find a place to live for a while for no rent, but to open and work in a place to do exactly the kind of activism, social or cultural, which you want to do. This is a history of decades of both altruistic and playful illegal activism which really very few people know about.
A question for the class is why? We can discuss afterwards. [Answer: Mainstream media, indebted to property interests for support, will not report it.]
The Italian Autonomists had a very specific word for their kind of activism. They called it “extra-parliamentary” opposition politics. That meant they did not try to run candidates in elections, either nationwide for parliament or for city councils – and they did not try to take over labor unions. They organized separately, outside of existing institutional structures like governments and labor unions, and did not ask permission or coordinate their direct actions with the powers that be. That way they preserved all their energies for their direct action organizing, which is demanding in itself.
This ideology was not without consequences. The Autonomia movement was destroyed. An alliance of convenience between right wing Christian Democrats and Communist judges and government officials succeeded in imprisoning many of the leading theorists and activists – college professor Antoni Negri is the best known – and sending many others into exile. (Franco Berardi, aka “Bifo”, lived in Paris and New York during the years of repression.)
Even so, this political model spread in Europe. Germans particularly took it up, forming groups called Autonomen, which supported demonstrations dressed in black and ready to fight police. The signature of an Autonomen demonstration was the burning car, adding an extra hazard to parking in Berlin.
One of the most frequent causes of German Autonomen demonstrations during their heyday in the 1980s was the eviction of squats. The slogan, “One eviction a million Euros of damage” often slowed down police and inclined city governments to negotiations.
Over decades, what the model of extra-parliamentary direct action achieved was a network of large building occupations which provided spaces for organizing politically, socially and culturally throughout Europe.
The CSOA social centers provided meeting places for the Global Justice Movement to organize their movement and to prepare their major demonstrations against international trade and financial meetings.
The CSOAs were also the infrastructure of subculture. During the 1990s the idea of the social center was taken up by punks, who didn't especially like old hippies and tiresome communists, so they squatted their own centers. In the 2000s free party people, electro-beat ravers didn't like the mosh pits and crusty dirt-love of the punks so they took over their own places. There always seemed to be enough abandoned buildings to go around...
… until fairly recently. As David Harvey has pointed out, contemporary capitalism is in a crisis because of the declining rate of profits. The crisis of '08 was brought on by the crazy speculation of banks seeking profits in newly created casino markets (derivatives, hedge funds and the like). While that hasn't stopped, governments have slowed it down. So what to do? The main problem, Harvey says, is that there's too much money sloshing around with too few profitable places to put it. That's why capital is flooding into cities, especially the “global cities”. Developing property for rich buyers and renters delivers a high rate of return in a difficult market for investment. He calls this “rent seeking,” and it's made vacant properties in city centers very desirable. Even state-owned social housing is being sold off to developers as it finds itself in the expanding center of global cities.

All this means that the sites of popular autonomous political organizing, the social centers, have been under great pressure. Squatting in the center of global cities has become nearly impossible, and difficult everywhere.
Activists in the Middle East and Europe turned to public space to organize mass demonstrations and encampments – long-running open-ended demonstrations to achieve extra-parliamentary pressure on oppressive governments.
These camps mobilized far more than the communists, hippies, punks and ravers who had opened all those dirty, rough-looking COSAs in the past. The 15M movement in Spain was made up of many young people who simply could not find jobs in the depression conditions of austerity government with double-digit unemployment. They did not have an immediately recognizable ideological position. “They don't represent us” – that was a major slogan, and they meant this first in opposition to the duopolistic Socialist-Popular Party consensus that dominated Spanish politics and colluded with the European Union in imposing austerity. But the “indignados” of 15M did not look to the United Left (IU), communists and left socialists which form a minority party in Spain for representation either. That party is bound to the labor unions and the old way of doing things for the benefit of their members.
After not so very long, the 15M encampment in Puerta del Sol was evicted by police. The activists were not surprised by this. But before it happened, they had already conceived a plan. The 15M movement would move into the barrios, the neighbourhoods, and form local assemblies meeting every week to discuss local problems. They did this, and joined up withcommunity groups which had been relatively inactive, but were rejuvenated by the influx of new members.
In Madrid, the rightwing city government started to harass the weekly meetings in public squares, writing tickets for unlawful assembly and the like. So the 15M activists joined with squatters to open and manage new social centers where they could meet and not be harassed by police. In my neighbourhood in Madrid, some in the assembly squatted a vacant warehouse. They were soon evicted. But like most squatting collectives, this did not discourage them. They moved to another district, to squat a school. Evicted from there they squatted a bank. Now, with the new Podemos-linked city government in power, they have been granted the legal use of another abandoned school.
It is worth noting that the Occupy Wall Street encampment in the U.S. A. didn't do any of this. Instead they fractionated into many little working groups which met privately and designed projects. Many Occupy activists were relieved not to have to deal with a time-consuming general assembly anymore. In consequence, the movement itself simply melted away. Although many individuals did become politicized and undertake various activisms, Occupy Wall Street itself did not become any kind of political force.
Occupy Wall Street broke up, helped along by a coordinated federal government initiative to evict camps in cities around the country simultaneously. The Spanish 15M movement, however, continued coherent. It became an electoral movement, and captured power first on the European Union level, then in the Spanish parliament and in cities around the country. I'll discuss in my talk later today [subsequent blog post] some of how this happened.
The assembly-based municipal movement, rooted in locality, is a powerful revolutionary dream. It has been spelled out in the early 20th century movement of council communism, and in Murray Bookchin's plans for libertarian municipalism. It has been rehearsed for decades in the social center movement where large spaces have been opened, defended, and managed by assemblies of activists.
It was promoted by the “leaderless” Zapatistas, and generalized within the leadership of the Global Justice Movement with its complex horizontal organization for coordinating demonstrations, and its different “blocs” of activists with very different ideas of what to do in a demonstration.
Finally it was taken up by the 15M, and the “movement of the squares” in many different cities in 2011 – movements that were not really left wing in their composition and intention, but were about daily life, about privation, obscene wealth and government corruption.
Many of the talking points of the Global Justice Movement has been seized upon by Trump to deceive voters – that is the old-time fascist strategy, ethnic nationalist populism with socialist sauce that you can easily scrape off.

The tactic that brought the movement(s) together, that drew the world's attention, is as old as revolution – occupation.
All the reasons for discontent with the way things are going were enumerated by Paul Mason in his viral blog post of early 2011, “Twenty reasons why it's kicking off everywhere” (the basis of a 2012 book of the same name).
These have not changed. So the opportunity remains.


Bill Weinberg, “Zapatistas and the Globalization of Resistance,” Yes magazine, May 2004

Paul Mason, “Twenty reasons why it's kicking off everywhere,” 2011; original blog post at:

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Muni in Minneapolis

I've returned from Minneapolis, and an exciting series of talks, discussions, and hangings-out around the question of “municipalismo.” What could this Spanish movement mean in terms of the issues facing a U.S. city in the Trump era of intended “deconstruction” of the federal government?, and the now-unfortunate doctrine of “pre-emption”, meaning both state and federal governments have authority over cities. (Repugnicans are using and planning to use this power to thwart city government initiatives to protect immigrants; what worked for equality and freedom in the civil rights era may soon work precisely against it.)
What it means is what it has always meant – building popular power through locally-based assemblies of citizens in cities, which 'scales up' through a network of consultation circles, committees and intermediate bodies to culminate in a group of candidates proposed for election to a parliament. In the U.S. case this will be a city council and mayoralty – (precisely what the Spanish have succeeded in capturing in cities across Spain) – and bicameral legislatures at the state and federal level.
This is a strategy outside the U.S. model of a Roman Senate (Congress of two houses) and a rotating Emperor-ship. Citizens' assemblies – town hall meetings, in our usage – have no clear part to play in this model.
In other words, within our political system, our political discussion, and our habits of doing politics, the local assembly of citizens is absent. We don't see it. We don't make it deliberately and regularly. And we have no idea of its power and utility.
The other key point, as we learned last week over the 'phone from our speaker in the Barcelona en comu municipalist movement, is that the citizens' assemblies which built their electoral success were not ideologically based. They were neither “left” nor “right.” (Left and right, of course, are terms deriving from the location of political parties in an antique French legislature, i.e., a concept rooted in representational electoral politics.)
This is actually a lot to wrap one's head around. It's a new model of politics – no, sorry, it's an old one. But it's a model, based on ancient Greek, not Roman precedent, which has not had much traction in the USA. Nor did the Bolsheviks, the initiators of Russian “communism,” or state socialism much appreciate what their enemies called council commnism, and the USSR worked to suppress the movement throughout Europe. Libertarian municipalism has remained a dream articulated by Murray Bookchin of Vermont, although it inspired a Kurdish leader and is being implemented in Rojava, the proto-state emerging in Syria and Turkey.
But going forward, we are going to try to figure out what we are supposed to be doing about all this, how we are going to spread or implement municipalist ideas in the USA. And it will be coming out of and into Minneapolis, through the efforts of this small determined group of people, and a wider circle of thinkers, academics, and artists who want to learn and do and see what can happen. 'Cause what's going on now is not great, and how we can fight against it 'within the system' of representational electoral democracy is not working out so well.
So, are we talking? Are we writing? Are we publishing and distributing? Are we acting? Out of doors, in other buildings, in our homes, online?
Resistance is assembly. How is assembly arrived at? What does assembly do? All this remains to be seen. All that remains to be done.

NEXT: Text of my talks on municipalism at Macalester College, St. Paul, Minnesota