Contemporary resistance to crisis and austerity: some reflections on dynamics, challenges and opportunities

*Keynote delivered to the Willi Münzenberg First International Congress “Global Spaces for Radical Solidarity: Transnational Movements, Social, Cultural and Humanitarian Ideas, Networks and Media of the 20th Century” in Berlin, September 20, 2015

Good afternoon. It is a real honour and a privilege to be invited here to provide the closing address for what I hope has been for each of you a wonderful conference. I hope you will forgive me today for speaking mostly about Spain and Europe in a conference on global solidarity but I hope that what I have to say will have relevance for you wherever your personal sphere of action may be.

We are living through a really fascinating moment in politics. On the one hand the panorama is very depressing as we witness the ravages of austerity politics and the rise of discourses and practices that dehumanise and criminalise poverty and continue to justify the increasing wealth inequality that characterises even the most prosperous of countries.

But we are also witnessing a greater perception of the failure of neoliberal policies to address the real needs of the majority of citizens, and the development of a grassroots re-politicization accompanied by the emergence of social movements that demand a regeneration of democracy.

Europe, the idea of it and the reality of it, is also being put the test and Europe’s citizens are being forced to rethink what they want Europe to be and if and how they want to be a part of it. For many, the Greek negotiations stripped bare any illusions about the democratic or participatory nature of the EU power structure, beholden and enmeshed as it is with the Troika and its dictates, which in turn serve the interests of specific banks and specific national and international elites. In the face of those interests and the real power of neoliberalism over national economies, Greek democracy was consigned to window dressing rather than a player with rights in that negotiation. This is a tragedy for Greece, and a crisis of course but also an opportunity, as all crises are opportunities.

Europe now faces another crisis, that of the influx of refugees, which certainly is a crisis for the refugees, but probably much less of a crisis for Europe, despite the hyperbole. The identity crisis for Europe will depend on how we ultimately respond to the people who are appealing to us for help.

In July, David Cameron characterized the crisis as a localized migrant crisis in Calais. According to him and his ministers, swarms of migrants were trying to break into Britain because access to new technologies had given them a glimpse of how much better life was here. He spoke then very proudly of French and UK cooperation in more effective policing and in building higher fences. In September he pledged to let thousands of refugees into Britain. Now it was a refugee crisis, now there was some recognition of the fact that these people were humans fleeing a conflict.

But what happened between July’s “swarm of economic migrants” and September’s pledge to take in refugees?

What happened is that Europe’s citizens took the action their governments were failing to take, by organizing collectively in solidarity with the refugees, taking supplies, organizing housing rosters, pressuring governments and media to recognize the rights of refugees under international human rights conventions to which all EU nations are signatories, making visible the plight of the refugees and the real suffering and costs of the terrible journey’s they have had to take. But at the same time that citizens took action, many were also working to change the conversation, to change the parameters of the debate, to change the public narrative and perception around the issue.

For solidarity to materialize, we must first change the narrative about who is deserving of our solidarity. How can we do that effectively?

When Cameron speaks of migrants breaking into Britain, he is conjuring up an image of threat, that what people have will be taken from them. The irony that this comes from someone whose austerity budget has taken so much away from the British people, will not be lost on you I am sure, but in appealing to people’s fears he also appeals to their lower nature, and so this is a politics of fear on the one hand and distraction on the other: see he is saying: it isn´t my government that is cutting your ability to live in a decent home, get a university education, continue to have access to a solid healthcare system and so on, it is those swarms of migrants over there who come to rob you of what you have. So how do we, who have less access to mass media, to the direct means of reaching other citizens change that narrative? How can we contest a politics of fear and distraction?

You will all be aware of the disturbing images coming from Hungary which recalls images of horrors in Europe’s not too distant past.

In order to convince others to choose solidarity there needs to be effective communication, and I want to talk a bit about this today.

In 2013 I was in Windsor Canada and I was picked up by a taxi driver who told me he had left Syria and that his brother who had stayed behind had been crossing the road the week before in Aleppo with his 8 year old son after buying some vegetables and he had been shot by a sniper. Miraculously the bullet missed his vital organs and he was being patched up and mended. His story brought me into human contact with the Syrian crisis for the first time.

Two years later I was driving in a taxi in Cornwall, and the taxi driver told me that he had recently returned from the US where he had hoped to emigrate, but had been unable to secure permanent residency. He was a Mormon with five children and he talked to me about his faith and his beliefs. The conversation turned then to the refugees arriving in the Greek islands. “It is so difficult to know what to do in these cases” he said. “I mean what does one do?” I didn’t launch into a deep political analysis about the origins of the conflict, the EU ‘s obligation under the human rights conventions and so on. I simply said, “Can you just imagine for a moment feeling so desperate, having lost everything, being willing to put your family into a rickety boat… in that case what would you hope that others do?”

I am not suggesting that I transformed this taxi driver’s politics in the space of an hour’s cab drive, but we did connect across our differences. I did not try to convince him of the superiority of my thinking, instead I appealed to his own higher nature. And I listened to him without judging him. He was genuinely struggling to work out how he should respond to the plight of the refugees, and leaders like Cameron were giving him one option of how to address the issue: build higher fences and get more police on the borders. Deep down though, this made him very uncomfortable. Because he, like all of us, has a higher nature.

This story is a small micro interaction and I am not suggesting that this is all we need to do, go out and simply add together all of these micro-interactions and “hey presto!” we will have transformation. But I would like to reflect on communication, because if we don’t change the conversation and find a way to appeal to people’s higher selves in terms that are meaningful to them, and not only to us, we won’t make a change.

So I would like to develop this idea by speaking a bit about what has happened in Spain over the past five years or so, first with the 15-M or Indignados movement and then what has happened with the recent municipal elections, and what relevance both of those things have to do with thinking about solidarity and change in this precise historical moment.

The global crisis placed capital and human life in opposition to each other, and the 15-M movement from the beginning was claiming that life needs to be placed above markets and politics: the slogan was “we are not merchandise in the hands of politicians and bankers”. At the same time, the 15-M movement was and is a movement that is fundamentally about demanding a new form of democratic relationship between citizens and institutions and representatives, demanding that thos insitutions and representatives put life before the interests of markets and political elites, demanding “real democracy now”. Incredibly, it managed to generate what Victor Sampedro and Josep Lobera[i] have called a “consensual dissent”, with about 80 per cent of Spaniards agreeing with the movement’s key demands one year after the movement emerged in 2011. But how do you reach such a wide consensus?

In 2014 a new party was created called Podemos and just a few months later it managed to get over a million votes in the European parliamentary elections. How on earth did that happen?

Is it that the movement prepared the ground and the party swept up the benefits? Yes …and No.

Part of the story begins before 15-M itself, in a long process of thinking about effective political communication within certain circles of autonomous movements in Spain. That is a very long story, but I will fast forward to November of 2010 when a small group of activists got together to do a community TV show called La Tuerka.

Originally the idea was to provide an alternative outlet for debates and newscoverage of issues from a leftist perspective that would be relevant to social movements in Madrid and other parts of Spain.

Soon though the long held desire to “break out of the activist ghetto” took hold and they began to invite right wing commentators onto the show, including some right wing politicians, to debate in a respectful if critical environment. Soon more and more people began watching the show and as of this morning it has had over 30 million views on You Tube. Other political debate shows began to take notice and invited the presenter of La Tuerka, Pablo Iglesias on to their talk shows.

It wasn’t that they were enamored of his politics, it was that whenever he was on their audience numbers shot up. What was it that made him so effective? Was it just his natural charisma? Of course, charisma has something to do with it, but behind the charisma there is also a lot of deep reflection about the nature of effective political communication.

Some key features that I distinguish are the following:

  • A willingness and insistence on engaging political opponents rather than simply preaching to the choir, and talking to people rather than talking at them.
  • The careful use of language that will not trigger the block response in half the listeners in the audience. In a country with deep right left cleavages that are rooted in the living memory of an atrocious civil war and a 40 year dictatorship this means developing language that is deeply normative and appeals to shared or common values and is invoked against the dominant narratives that serve to justify the status quo. Counterhegemonic narratives are only effective across a wide majority of people if they appeal in some way to shared values.
  • Constructing an inclusive we that critiques an exclusive them. There are severe limits to this approach as I and others have pointed out, but as a short term strategy it is a necessary first step
  • Altering the tone of the engagement from direct confrontation to calm and reasoned debate, backed up with facts and evidence.
  • Recognizing that TV is still one of the key ways people’s views are shaped about politics, so if you want to reach people, you need to get into their living rooms.

Now some people feel that expressing their analysis and their ideology is the most important thing, and I can respect that. But one has to ask what is most important in the given moment. For example, when some of us insisted that the refugees be called refugees and not migrants, it was because we were trying to alter a dominant narrative that framed people as being motivated by economic interest and that freed EU leaders from their legal obligations. There were those who decried setting up false distinctions between migrants and refugees and saw this as pitting one group against the other. Aren’t migrant rights also important?

This is a valid critique. Sometimes, however, the question becomes: what is the narrative that will be likely to change the short term situation now, to motivate the solidarity response of EU citizens, that will pressure the governments to take action now for these people in this moment. Not what should we do for the perfect future society but what can we do right now to make the first real step.

In telling this story of La Tuerka I am not suggesting there is a linear progression from La Tuerka to 15-M to what followed, quite the contrary. I am telling it to show the kinds of ideas that were in the air in certain political spaces in Madrid and how they were ultimately replicated and shared across a wide group of social actors.

In the 15-M encampments the essence of the camps was trying to think and act collectively and in common rather than in conflict. The 15-M movement therefore was also very savvy and reflexive in the use of language that was inclusive and not divisive. It was important that people starting with different ideologies could feel a part of this change, could share the critique, could make demands of the government and the system without feeling they were betraying their own deeply held ideological beliefs. So the movement appealed to people’s higher natures and to shared common values, a key value being solidarity.

When the crisis hit there was an immediate narrative put forth by political and economic elites justifying austerity that claimed that the problem was that we had all lived beyond our means, as if everyone had been going on vacations and buying plasma TVs and second homes and that was the cause of the crisis.

The 15-M movement and other related movements like the PAH, which mobilizes around the right to housing, immediately countered that narrative and did so very effectively: the cause of the crisis was not rooted in individual behavioral lifestyle choices, it was a political crisis that benefited particular groups of people, and the banks had made billions but were never the less bailed out with public money, all the while blaming citizens for what had happened and making them pay for it. This counter -narrative can be condensed in the term “crisis-swindle”, or crisis estafa. Of course, the counter narrative was also backed up with many actions such as the occupation of the Puerta del Sol, but also the occupation of banks. Old pensioners who had been swindled by Bankia under the notorious preferentes scheme began organzing their own protests in front of the bank. Meanwhile, a group called 15MpaRato used crowdfunding to bring a legal case against the director of the bank and others for fraud and corruption. People were not waiting for others to take action on their behalves, they were self organizing to take action themselves.

At the same time people were highly reflexive about their form of communication and their discourse. One member of an anonymous non-group of bloggers called “at the end of the assembly” (Al final de la asamblea) put it this way:

“I am not sure what the language of the 99% would be, but I know what it isn’t. It isn’t the militant communiqué, journalistic stereotypes, the self referential codes of particular political and intellectual cadres. The language of the 99% is not where the 99% are but where they could be, not a minimum common denominator but an aggregate of voices…so writing in the language of the 99% is writing with that in your head, writing as if your message could be picked up by anyone…you take up the idea that that unknown man on the metro is called the 99%.”[ii]

Another element of this is a deliberate depoliticizing of the political: Arguing that the discussions are not about politics, but about “common sense” about “ordinary people and their needs” . Of course, the claim that politics needs to be about ordinary people is a deeply political claim , one that is geared to transforming common sense, but given the rejection of so many to “politics” with a capital “P” these debates were framed in an anti-political language. This is problematic for some, but I think has been a key to the movement’s effectiveness nevertheless.

Beyond language, solidarity was expressed in many ways that have been crucial to the movement’s dynamism. One key feature of 15-M is the interconnected nature of the network and of the issues it addresses. Particular issues do not “belong” to particular groups. Instead if one group focuses on an issue, the connection between the different groups in the network can be mobilized to pressure for change, and people work anonymously and in solidarity with each other, rather than seeking personal recognition. I have seen this countless times behind the scenes of groups and assemblies I have worked with, where lawyers, people working in all sorts of jobs from artist to sound engineer to media professionals, you name it, put themselves, their skills and their resources at the service of the movement.

Crucial here is the idea that the lawyers or media people and so on are not outsiders offering assistance, they are integral collaborators within the movements, and 15-M is definitely a movement that rejects assistencialism and embraces collaborative solidarity and the principle of self-replication of the movement as much as possible.

This approach sometimes comes up against some challenges when one tries to apply it to the new turn to what is called municipalism in Spain, where activist networks have decided to participate in local elections in participatory platforms.

One of my friends tells a story of his platform in a small city in Spain. The activists were working tirelessly to create a new municipal platform with ethical codes and mechanisms for participatory engagement at all stages and so on, meeting in their weekly assemblies to move the project forward. When the time came to configure the candidate lists they encountered a small problem. None of the members of the assembly had put themsleves forward for election. Instead, some people no one had ever heard of had put themsleves forward, clearly wanting to ride the wave of participation to victory without actually being implicated in the politics of the project in any way or necessarily subscribing to the ethical criteria. So the assembly passed an emergency measure that everyone in the assembly had to stand for the elections, which is how my friend found himself on the list for the elections—something he never wanted!

In my interviews with members of Podemos I have found this kind of story as well, a sort of very reluctant transformation of activists into politicians, with a steep learning curve and adjustment. But it is because of this shift that many people in Spain went from chanting “they don’t represent us” to “they DO represent us”. And I have to say this has provoked something of an identity crisis in many people—we are used to fighting the system after all.

How can we explain this turn to electoral politics from autonomous movements that have long had a real aversion to party politics?

First of all there is a recognition that politics is too important to be left in the hands of politicians. As Ada Colau the activist mayor of Barcelona has said “ Beyond social movements citizens have come to the traumatic realization that delegating politics has led to the privatization of politics, to the confusion between private and public interests, to the revolving doors, to generalized corruption. We should never delegate politics again because democracy doesn’t happen on its own.” [iii]

Second, the frustration that comes from seeing millions of people take to the streets only for the powers that be to systematically refuse to listen or respond to their demands and needs. In the face of so much suffering and such callous indifference, many opted to jump into the electoral sphere. Had the political superstructure been even somewhat more receptive this process might have been delayed indefinitely.

Third, the movements dynamism led to the idea that it might be possible to actually transform the political landscape and win, not just settle for the usual 5-14% of the vote. This idea that poltitics can be won rather than simply accepting a small quota of power sharing is new, strange as that may sound, and important.

Fourth, is the reality that the deep enagement with participatory politics has inspired people to try to experiment with new forms of electoral politics, and this is what we have seen in the municipalist platforms.

How is this form of politics different? Apart from the particpatory nature of the configuration of political representatives, and the use of digital tools to enhance participation and decision making, there is another feature that is important and that gets overlooked: In refusing to take money from any corporate or banking institutions, these initiatives have subverted the usual arrangements whereby policy and program are beholden to economic interests. Crowdfunding and volunteers replace the electoral money machine, and the creativity of hundreds of people propels the campaigns.

Politics became exciting again and is becoming exciting again for many people across Europe.

All of this is tremendously exciting and interesting for those of us who love to study politics and movements. But there are still some really big challenges.



The first challenge I see still is the issue of women’s marginalization and exclusion—we see a firm commitment to women’s liberation in progressive parties, just not quite enough commitment in many cases to actually allow women to exercise authority in the top spots. This has to change. I don’t think it is a coincidence that three of the new mayors of large cities in Spain who came in on municipalist platforms are women. And even some of the most cynical real politik lefties have noticed that too. I have spoken extensively about this issue already elsewhere[iv], so I will simply state again that we must stop accepting excuses for the lack of women in roles of leadership in our movements, in our unions, in our parties, and in our conferences, because there is simply no justification for it. Someone said the other day in justification of Corbyn’s appointment of men to all the top spots in his Labour shadow government: “There is no women’s liberation without socialism! Stop bleating on about women’s inclusion!”

Well guess what? There is no liberation possible without women. We do not need men with the correct socialist analysis to come along and liberate us, thank you very much. No more excuses, no more waiting. Either we all work together to include women fully in political leadership at all levels or we can turn out the lights and go home, as we say in Spanish, we can just call it a day.

The second challenge is the tendency of the left to eat its children and do the right’s work for them. I have seen this happening in Spain around Podemos and other electoral initiatives. I certainly feel that it is necessary for there to be a strong critique of all institutions and structures that set themselves up as channels of representation, and Podemos is very far from perfect and needs to be receptive to critique. But I have also seen a tendency to refuse to acknowledge what Podemos has achieved and the role that thousands of people have played in that process and who are committed to the same values and goals they always have been as activists in the movements. I was- I believe- the first to write about the real tension between the 15-M movement and Podemos, and I respect and recognize that tension which I think in some senses was, is and probably should be unresolvable. But there is a tendency for some on the left (for lack of a better term) to want to demolish anyone who rises up beyond the base, forgetting the fact that the alternative is leaving politics in the hands of those who are always in charge.

At the same time there are unrealistic expectations of what a party like Podemos or some of the other municiplaist platforms would or should be able to do, as if they were not inserted into an electoral and insitutional logic not of their own making. Whatever criticism one can make of Podemos, it is undeniable that they have played a crucial role in delegitimizing and then re-legitimizing political parties in Spain, they have re-signified what a politician can be. It isn’t politicians they are critiquing anymore, it is the casta, the mafia, a certain kind of political actor, who needs to be replaced by a better kind: not corrupt and in touch with citizens voices and needs, who leads by obeying the citizens, and this is the rhetoric that the municipalist democratic movements have also put forward.

There is and always will be a constant and necessary tension between electoral logics and movement logics: we need to recognize that politics needs movements as much as or more than movements need politics. In saying this I do not mean that movements must be committed to electoral politics, I would be the last person to say this.

I do think, however, that after decades of declining trust in representative politics we are standing before a historic opportunity for change.

When the three mayors elected on progressive municipalist platforms came into office in Madrid, Barcelona and Valencia, they not only took similar immediate measures in child welfare, housing and poverty alleviation, but they also worked together to share information and strategies, putting movement network strategies of solidarity and cooperation into practice. They are all activists as well as politicians, with a trajectory of movement organizing behind them, and with actual movement organizing behind them—in other words they were elected because of movement organizing, not because of a political party machine. In the face of the refugee crisis Ada Colau and Manuela Carmena worked to set up housing registers of people willing to take in refugees. They are working with movements to govern for the citizens of their respective cities and with a broader global solidarity agenda.

Whether Michels iron law will kick in I cannot say, maybe it is just a matter of time, but for now at least we can try to support those people who are committed to overturning austerity and social injustice within our institutions. Because they certainly cannot face entrenched systems of power without a mobilized citizenry, and voting every four years is simply not enough. Ada Colau has argued that even with a majority in parliament that is committed to change the financial elites will do everything in their hands to prevent it, from boycotting to criminalization, and only a mobilized citizenry can really enable change to happen.[v] We need to transform the political culture and the institutions and I think these are real attempts to do that.

I do not believe –like some– that parties are the logical or necessary expression or outcome of movement politics.. I do think that right now we are at a moment where interesting synergies between parties and movements can take place. As Ada Colau said before becoming mayor:: “Those who have stepped forward have done so while taking care to maintain the independence and autonomy of the movements, which maintain their own roadmap and mobilisations. We are going to need more social mobilisation than ever. [vi]So while I am not going to encourage people to get into party politics or to give any party a blank cheque of trust, I will suggest that we should treat those who do enter the institutional fray in a spirit of generosity, especially if only yesterday they were standing with us side by side.

What can we take from this for a wider discussion of global solidarity? We have already witnessed an explosion of solidarity recently in Europe and around the world in the face of the refugee crisis. We have also seen exciting new initiatives happening in social movements and in municipal and even national party platforms that are trying to reclaim politics for the people. These movements represent the work of hundreds of thousands of people, and there are no easy short cuts or magic sauce recipes. Just as Spain’s new municipal platforms are networking with each other to share strategies and resources, new political and movement networks will need to be built up across Europe and beyond, a very difficult task indeed.

But movements have already succeeded in changing the conversation-in effectively countering hegemonic narratives, and will need to keep the pressure and forge new connections not just between those who already share a common ideology and identification but beyond the comfort zone— by reaching out to the higher self in others that we all have inside of us. We need to build up a consensual dissent that traverses ideological barriers and geographical borders. We will also need to create a new social imaginary, make ourselves and others believe that there IS an alternative, that citizens are the protagonists of change and do not have to wait for experts to diagnose problems or for authorities to implement changes, and that prefiguration is important but can also take place within institutions, in dialogue with and reclaiming democratic institutions for the people. And finally, despite my own resolutely practical nature, a word for the poets, the artists and the dreamers, who are essential to showing us what is possible beyond our own limited imaginations, and who can inspire us and light our way.

Thank you.

[1] The Spanish 15-M Movement: A consensual dissent?

[iv] See Flesher Fominaya C (2015) El sentido común, lo “político”, el feminismo y el 15-M (Common sense, “the political”, feminism, and 15-M) Encrucijadas, Revista Crítica de Ciencias Sociales, 9

Also, the Keynote Birkbeck London 2015 “Unpacking Common Sense for Social Transformation” (Podcast)



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