Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Social Centers and Democratic Revolution

This text appeared during the moment of Spain's recent municipal elections. Coming from a long-time activist who was then elected to office, it is a reflection on what the squatted social centers active throughout the country might offer to the new formations of governance. This blogger came across the article referenced on the website of the recent mission of U.S. activists called "nyctospain.com."

Social centers and democratic revolution: The main contribution they can make right now is to put their many years of experience on the table
by Xavi Martínez This article is a collage of ideas from people in the Ateneu Candela (Terrassa), and several texts by people linked to other social centers*
posted at diagonalperiodico.net as the website of the fortnightly Diagonal newspaper, May 21, 2015, as "Centros sociales y revolución democrática"

We cannot, and should not be what we are not. As Subcomandante Marcos says, "Practices should think about themselves, instead of theory thinking about the practice." So we go ahead thinking about ourselves.
In our cities there are some spaces where the same people work, with autonomy, and hence beyond both institutional logic and that of the market. These are places of meeting, of daily life and of collective projects: an urban community garden, a cooperative bookstore, a pub for the youth in a neighborhood, a P2P laboratory, a community center full of life, etc.
The Ateneu Candela is one of these. This social center was born 14 years ago in the city of Terrassa (provinnce of Barcelona), in an old textile factory renovated collectively. Unlike the political parties or classic organizations it does not require affiliation; membership in the social center is built on participation -- a lot of people participating in many initiatives like a cafe, a bookstore, a consumer cooperative, meeting rooms, a stage for performances.
The engine of a space like the Ateneu Candela is its people in motion, and it is these people that support it. People inhabiting the community center have many ways to participate. It is their nearest community. Social centers are also interconnected in a larger network: La Casa Invisible in Málaga, La Pantera Rossa in Zaragoza, Katakrak in Pamplona, El Patio Maravillas and la Villana in Madrid, and many others.
All these social centers are open spaces in the city. We are not talking about places for a group of similar people, but for many people who in their diversity recognize each other as equals in the face of the becoming-precarious of their lives, and who cooperate with each other. They are places for living well, where people stand up for their rights with joy, and contribute to the transformation of the city and their lives.
Social centers in general have been, and still are meeting spaces for dozens of projects and initiatives -- political, cultural and social -- which have generated many networks of people and groups, promoting forms of cooperation among equals. For many years we have demanded our "right to live in a city that is not subordinated to the interests of a few"; we have put other ways of living our lives into practice and under experiment.
After the 15M [movement of 2011], participation in the social centers grew, and the list of people and groups who use the Ateneu Candela as a meeting place has not stopped growing. The place is currently gaining strength everywhere, with the chance to take on the 'mafia', and attack the institutions that have been captured by the 1% over the years, at different levels and with various brands.
This is happening also at the local level, with a new wave of citizens candidates standing in elections for local government. In many of these new electoral platforms people linked to social centers are involved. And conversely, many of the citizens engaged in these campaigns have begun to participate in social centers.
¿Surprise? No. Although some now have rushed to sound alarms about this -- we are living a democratic revolution. Not only here in Spain, but throughout Southern Europe, the Mediterranean, and this revolution has even reached Hong Kong. The 15M movement began here in Spain. In the social centers and elsewhere, people around the Ateneu Candela made up the crowds and the power in the public squares. And as noted above, many people in the streets began to participate later in the social centers or other public spaces, including the Ateneu. The same democratic revolution that began with the 15M, is now embodied in the new citizen candidacies: the 99% is doing politics and struggling for their lives in multiple connected ways.
We can ask a few questions about all this: How do the people of the social centers position themselves in the midst of this effervescence of real democracy? What can we expect from this cycle which is shaking the elections and opening institutional spaces? Are we not going to need these spaces of autonomy once citizens with the DNA of the 15M movement fill elected offices and institutions? What can we contribute?
We stand together with the 15M: close, but in a different way. We are close because we are part of the democratic revolution, and we want real democracy now. And in different ways -- as many ways as the diverse people who participate in the different spaces. Social centers like the Ateneu Candela, unlike traditional parties or some classic political organizations, do not require membership, and affiliation is built from that same concrete participation. It is not a fixed organization, but rather is involved in multiple projects or initiatives. This allows, in turn, multiple forms of participation.
With the democratic revolution we hope to retake the city from the hands of the 1% and return it to the people. We want to win the right to the city, and secure a real democracy. Because we are not merchandise. We know that is not enough, but it is what we have long been committed to achieve. However, we are not naive. As Déborah Ávila and Marta Malo say, "the institutional assault is not the only way," because in addition to the 'ceilings' of the mobilization, new 'ceilings' appear when it comes to institutions. "There is no doubt that the institutions could improve the lives of the majority, but we also know that not all social models, lifestyles and behaviors today, emanate from institutions." Real democracy would take center stage and would accelerate when people massively break into the institutions which have been hijacked by the interests of a few, and return them to the service of the 99%. But when this happens "it will require a mobilized society that continues to create other tangible sustainable ways of living".
Social centers have been, over the last decade, places of experimentation in new city models based on social rights, in different forms of democracy at the local level, and new ways of understanding culture and access to it, or in laboratories of free software and digital fabrication. These laboratories for innovation in production based on common goods [los bienes comunes], have resulted in experimental apparati of creation and production, de-precarization and empowerment.
Since the Casa Invisible of Málaga, we think that the main contribution that social centers can make at this moment is to put on the table their years of experience in "challenging the traditional institution from the perspective of the commons". One of the great challenges facing different municipal leaders is that of building new institutions: the experience of the social centers is shaping up as something quite valuable in that task.
We think like our friends in Malaga. As Felipe G. Gil notes, the "inhospitable" public institutions have much to learn from the "open and inclusive operations that occur in communities not invaded by the very bureaucracy of public institutions". Social centers, and their practices related to the management of the commons, have generated tools that can revolutionize the institutions and public spaces, such as "protocols and methodologies that promote inclusion, hospitality, openness and connection."
Social centers are spaces which permanently interrogate themselves. They walk while wondering, and don't have problems when it comes to changing the space itself, nor their ways of making and organizing, nor building alliances. One of the big deficits of political institutions in deep crisis lies in their rigidity, their inability to regenerate, to innovate, to correct what does not work and reinforce what does. Social centers bring fresh air to this issue, creating living, dynamic social processes that permanently transform, adapting to changing times, but also providing storage, buildup [acumulación], shelter -- in difficult times -- and openness and change as the times require it, always fleeing from dogmatism with an unquestioning loyalty to autonomy.
It will be critical that the social centers organized by citizens continue to exist with their own independent character. As Felipe G. Gil says, "it is time that public institutions learn how to care for and manage the common goods of the social centers". Civic institutions and public facilities should use the management tools of the peoples' spaces and come to resemble them. These places should rethink themselves, and learn from citizen movements, some of which live in social centers. Governments should listen and obey their people while working for a better city.
Now, those who want to storm the institutions to get rid of some and put others in their place should think again. This is about bringing democracy to the people. Real democracy and institutions that are of the majority is a challenge that has only just opened up, and therefore it is vital that "social centers organized by citizens continue to exist with their own independent character."
The city that we imagine is full of spaces that move people, with autonomy, common areas of life for people and collective projects that transform the city to make it better. One or more in each district, with its wealth and particularities. Places that can be developed as they deserve without having to continually suffer the scarcity of resources to survive or simply have a roof to develop. Projects with their own resources and publics -- which are the people -- to deploy all their transforming power.

Centros sociales y revolución democrática, by Xavi Martínez posted May 21, 2015 at: https://www.diagonalperiodico.net/la-plaza/26808-centros-sociales-y-revolucion-democratica.html
Translation by A.W.M.

*Link posted at "nyctospain.com" report on the visit of NYC activists to Spain during the May 2015 elections with the following comment: "Great article exploring the role of social centers in the "municipalist" revolution from our friend Xavi Martinez who we met a few days ago (and some of us have known for years). He's a leader from the PAH, active in the Ateneu Candela, and as of yesterday, a council member in Terrassa!"

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

"Forget About That Squat"

I'm going to rant now, folks, so feel free to change the channel. I just watched a little interview with a guy who was billed as the "creator of Occupy Wall Street," (didn't notice that one, eh? Yes, your movement was "created") -- and read an article on "lessons from the Spanish movement" by a pimp for Elizabeth Warren. Both these folks seem to think that the lessons of Podemos and Syriza are that the left should move decisively into the electoral arena in the USA. Forget all this organizing stuff and putting people on the street and all.
Apparently these people had their eyes firmly closed during the many years of runup to these electoral victories. That would be the endless demonstrations, encampments, and pitched battles in Athens. And it would include the large networks of mutual aid that emerged all throughout the islands of that nation (which were imitated and perverted by the right wing there), which lay outside the purview of Syriza. So this beanbag for Warren suggests that Spain's movement was animated by a network of social centers which provided the space for people to organize. (They were getting arrested when they met in public space.) We could do that in USA, but y'kno the rent's so high and all... What this author neglects to mention -- part of a contingent who visited Spain, who went to the social centers in Barcelona during election time, and certainly knows better -- is that these spaces for organizing were squatted! Yes, I mean taken over by citizens who refused to pay rent to provide themselves with the political and cultural urban space they needed, and entered a legal process of contest for use of the property they occupied for purposes of commonsing.
This author also fails to mention the weekly mass demonstrations against cuts in social programs, and the back-turning on ministers by cultural luminaries because of cuts to culture, and (excuse me) the General Strike! The pitched battles with police by black-clad anarchists who could be seen on TV live from Burgos scampering merrily along in the background as angry elderly voiced their opinion of city hall to the cameras.
Direct Action Gets the Goods. It's an old anarchist slogan... and when you forget it, you can just turn to Tammany Hall, vote their way and look forward to your Christmas basket and maybe your cousin gets a job... while old man Plunkitt takes his opportunities upstairs.
The Warren person's post was linked out of the website of a group of activists who visited Spain recently, during the exciting municipal elections. (It's at http://www.nyctospain.com/.) These guys presented at the Left Forum recently, where left activist strategies are debated, and decisions made which determine a lot of what is going to happen on the ground in U.S. cities, since the funding agencies which back these professional activists take their cues from these conversations.
I was communicating early on with an organizer of this visit. I suggested that they visit our conference at some point -- Squatting Europe Kollective -- which was happening at the same time. I certainly can't blame them for giving that a pass... But they did visit social centers. They did visit Can Batlló, a complex of factories that has been taken over by citizens' assemblies. The renovations are being assisted by the Barcelona city hall. Why? Because the citizens' assemblies told them they were going to squat the place if they didn't come to an agreement on its use.
I should not be surprised by this failure to include squatting in their report to North Americans. Even as I peruse the Chokwe Lumumba plan, the plan for grassroots economic redevelopment of Jackson, Mississippi devised by the Black Panthers' lawyer and derailed by his sudden death, which would have used city funds to develop the kinds of structures of citizen participation as Spain, I read Neil Gray's review of David Harvey's Rebel Cities book, in which the socialist is taken to task for ignoring the Italian Autonomist movement ("autonomistas," he remarked snarkily at a party I attended). Harvey gets it, as Gray quotes Blanqui, that "rent devours all." But his "aporia" on the Italian movement which generated the social center model for squatters across Europe (and his idealization of the Communist Party of Italy which repressed the Autonomists) extends to all the minoritarian movements, both political and cultural (punks), which made counter power and autonomous zones for the last 40 years. The fish of theory also rots from the head.
Let's see how this might be begun. Student movements have resisted street austerity cuts around the globe through pitched street battles -- and won. Only not in the USA. Schools are being closed all around that country. Fine. Take 'em. That's property paid for by your tax dollars, built for public interest. Commons it.
As long as these direct action strategies are not part of the calculus of U.S. activists, and especially the (often professional) people who presume to lead them, so long will the hopes and dreams of many continue to be unfulfilled, and energy and money circle endlessly around the electoral drain.

Erica Sagrans, "6 Lessons for the U.S. from Spain’s Democratic Revolution"

I refer to Micah White -- he is not responsible of course for a videotista's headlines, but he is an advocate of electoral stragegy now, and is convinced street protest doesn't work. Clearly I disagree...

Jackson Plan of Chokwe Lumumba

Neil Gray, "Whose Rebel City?"
December 2012 at http://www.metamute.org/editorial/articles/whose-rebel-city

Monday, June 1, 2015

To Build Counterpower We Must Be Power

Which is very difficult. It is easier to be critical, resistant, to things as they are than it is to assume responsibility for the welfare of people, to manage infrastructure when there is no one to complain to. The Barcelona meeting of SqEK, however, this time included reports from self-managed factories and workplaces. And, at the same time the meeting was being held, Barcelona was going through an electoral campaign and election. The winner -- Ada Colau is elected mayor of Barcelona, the squatter leader of the PAH anti-eviction group.
So... change is in the wind, big change. Many left politicians in sympathy with the movement of the commons are coming into power. How is the squatter movement going to work with this new emergent restructuration of political power in Spain?

A speaker at the Puerta del Sol, Madrid, on 15 May 2015, 4th anniversary of the 15M movement.

This was one of the very big questions hanging over our meeting... and it was evident in the absence of many otherwise interested Barcelonesans -- los barcelonense -- from our meeting. They were all out working for the Guanyem slate and Ada Colau.
I wish I could weigh in further on this question, and get into the content of sessions at the conference. But the action in the SqEK 2015 meeting for me revolved around an exhibition. We made a show of posters and zines from the squatter movement. I worked on this for weeks ahead of time. It was mounted in the vestibule of a theater for the opening reception at Ateneu Popular 9 Barris. This place, built mainly around a theater and circus training school, was once a squatted factory. Now it is fully legalized, and rebuilt as a comfotable facility in cooperation with the city government. Even though many now receive a salary to manage their place, the people of Ateneu 9 Barris, feel in sympathy with the social movement of squatting. They display a proud timeline detailing their activist period, when a stinky and poisonous factory was suddenly installed in a working class neighborhood. The neighbors were unhappy, and organized against it. Nothing happened with that, so, finally, they decided to occupy the factory and shut it down. For some years Ateneu Nou Barris ran as an occupied space.
SqEK people arrived there throughout the day, many bringing with them rolls of posters from their cities. Two Beehive collective people came from Mallorca and hung their banners -- "Mesoamerica Resiste" and their own Uter project, a dense allegorical drawing about the struggle for abortion rights. Carlos of the Sublevarte collective arrived from Mexico D.F., and put up the bright colorful silkscreen work of his group. Tobi and Andre both came from Berlin with their rolls, and Tina from Copenhagen brought work from Christiania and the Candy Factory. (Tobi has just brought out a new book on resistant street art in German, and digs this tough poli-street art website.)

Alan Smart, the co-editor and co-designer of the epochal "Making Room" anthology, put up a dense assemblage of texts and images from that book, mixed with photos Frank and Vanessa brought from the NYC LES squatter movement. Galvao arrived with tons of the zine and book material he had been printing for us throughout the week, and we filled several tables with a cornucopia of resistant literature. With the arrival of the other SqEKers, we were ready for the first day reception of our meeting.
The show we put up was only there for a few hours. We had to clear it out because the Ateneu was having a big Balkan music festival the next day. Sigh... So everything was packed into the big rented van, and was trucked to the next place. That was the IGOP institute of governance studies of the Universidad Autonoma of Barcelona. There in the second sub-basement -- yes, we're talking way underground culture! -- we re-installed the posters and zines, which Galvao had printed tirelessly over the a week's time. This time we mixed in the expository posters which many of the academics presenting had brought with them. During breaks in the sessions, conferees gazed at all the visual material, discussed and browsed the zines.
At the conclusion of the sessions, we moved up the hill, to the famous squat of Can Masdeu. That is a former hospital for lepers squatted many years ago as a permaculture-based commune. By now energy was lagging. We did not reinstall the exhibition, but the Beehive put up their banners and talked about them to the Spanish who came to the special SqEK public event. Afterwards Carlo of the Sublevarte collective from DF and Tobi presented on their work -- about the Mexican autonomous movement and the subversive street art of Berlin respectively.
Finally, much of the exhibition materials were rolled up, packed in the van, and returned to Madrid in preparation for the trip to USA in September. If you are around New York City then, you can see much of it at the downtown cultural center ABC No Rio. That place, famous among punk music afficionados, was itself once squatted. Now it is scheduled for demolition and rebuilding as a green building. "Making Room" will be the last show before the building comes down....
Now we are sifting through the material gathered, and I am readying my trip to the UK for the first sessions discussing my new book, Occupation Culture: Art, Squatting and the City from Below, from Minor Compositions. I'll be speaking (and listening!) at the Cowley Club in Brighton June 24th, and as part of another "gathering" event for UK squat materials at the wonderful Mayday Rooms archival project in London on the 26th.
Bas-relief signboard for the recent NYC tenants' rights march, by Seth Tobocman. An exhibition of the movement continues through June 15 at Interference Archive, Brooklyn.