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:

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