From “No to the War” to 15-M:

2 April, 2012

Social Movements that are not Social Movements

Amador Fernández-Savater

Culture of the Transition

The journalist Guillem Martínez1 has coined the term “Culture of the Transition” (CT) to describe the culture–strictly speaking, the set of ways of seeing, doing and thinking–which has predominated in Spain during the last 30 years, ever since the defeat of the radical movements of the 1970s (the independent workers movement, the counterculture, etc.).

In its essence, CT is a consensus culture, not in the sense that it reaches agreements by debating disagreements, but rather in the sense that, from the outset, it establishes the boundaries of what is possible: democracy and the market provide the only acceptable framework for coexistence and the organization of communal life–end of story. The CT has labored for 30 years, again and again, to impose this “end of story,” declaring “this is above argument,” “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” “the past is the past,” “there is no alternative,” “it’s either this or anarchy,” and so on.

Conflicts and problems represent potential rifts in the status quo and its division of places, tasks, and power, its determination of who may speak and who may not, of who makes decisions and who must simply obey them, of which words are of value and which ones are merely noise, of which proposals are viable and which ones are foolish, and so on. Since politics consists mainly of asking questions about the ways we can live together, the CT is a profoundly de-politicizing culture: one cannot ask questions about other ways of organizing communal life outside the range of authorized possibilities.

As a consensual, de-problematizing, de-politicizing culture, for three decades the CT ensured its control over reality through its monopoly on discourse and memory, determining how words should circulate and what they should mean, what we should think about and in what terms. It decided what we should remember and from which present day we should do so. For years this monopoly on meaning was put into effect largely by means of a centralized and one-way system of information in which only the media had access, the public served as a passive audience, and some subjects were excluded as untouchable. The CT’s objective, its obsession, is “cohesion.” Its notion of cohesion requires that all of us identify with the roles that we have been assigned to perform: politics is for politicians; communication is the concern of the media; authoritative statements are a privilege reserved for intellectuals and experts; fringe alternatives are the terrain of social movements; and lastly, the war of everyone against everyone else is society’s secret law. Maurice Blanchot defined as “political death” a situation in which we delegate all of our capacities (of thought, of expression, of decision) to a “power of salvation.”2 The CT is this power of salvation. Its form of political death is cohesion; its authority to classify and distribute social roles is based on the management of fear.

Over time, the power of the Culture of Transition has gradually weakened. On the one hand, the fears–of a military coup, of ETA terrorism, of a divided Spain–that were administered and exploited by the CT as its “power of salvation” have gradually diminished. On the other hand, the collective rights associated with the welfare state, which were also part of the consensus, have been progressively lost to privatization, cuts, and general precariousness. The CT is now increasingly viewed as the source of contemporary perils instead of as protection against them.

This disenchantment with the culture of consensus has a long history and has been expressed in a thousand different ways over the years, from abstaining from voting to social movements. It has led to the appearance of the 15-M [15th of May Movement] as a fully central (as opposed to fringe) mass phenomenon in society. On the one hand, 15-M is a defiant, explicit, and noisy rejection of the politics of politicians of every stripe. Its most representative chants and slogans are “they don’t represent us” and “they call it democracy, but it isn’t.”

On the other hand, it amounts to a practical and positive experiment exploring the slogan-declaration “democracia real ya” (real democracy now) in meetings, occupied places, and all kinds of social networks. Power struggles have been replaced by active listening, the construction of collective thought, awareness about what everyone is building together, a generous trust in the intelligence of fellow strangers, a rejection of majority and minority blocks, a patient search for all-encompassing truths, a constant questioning and re-questioning of the decisions that have been taken, the privilege of debating the process and the effectiveness of its results, to name just a few characteristics.

Social Movements That Are Not Social Movements

Although 15-M is the biggest breach we have ever seen in the CT’s wall, it is not without precedent. Other movements have posed questions from below about our life in common and have debated the meaning of what is being done and what is being done to us. They have brought other pasts into the foreground, proposed alternative images of coexistence and presented them in their own images and words, thereby evading the filters of politics and the media.

The gestures and words with the greatest political importance in recent years have invariably come from unforeseen places and groups: examples are the actions of the anti-war titiriteros (puppeteers) during the Goya Prize ceremony in 2003, the SMS messages which brought crowds together in front of the headquarters of the conservative Partido Popular on March 13, 2004, the speech delivered by Pilar Manjón of the Asociación 11-M Afectados del Terrorismo, the anonymous email which led to the V de Vivienda movement in 2006, and the recent tweet rebellion against the Sinde Law. On each of these occasions a strong critical viewpoint was expressed in ways cleverly designed to avoid criminal prosecution, social issues were raised without providing a soapbox for politicians, and marginalization or pigeon-holing into “political” or “ideological” categories was avoided. Being anybody, talking to anybody, and shouting like anybody, was the order of the day. Who was the “we” of “No to the War” or 13-M, of the V de Vivienda or the fight against the Sinde Law? Everyone and no one–people originating from a variety of engagements could be found together in open spaces working politically on solving common problems. Radical action never crops up where it is expected and today that is truer than ever before.

The modes of politicization set in motion by these movements don’t align with the modes of other social movements, old or new. They aren’t incited, managed, or led by militants or activists, as has been the case with squatters or with the civil disobedience or anti-globalization movements, but instead are created by people with no prior political experience. They don’t draw their strength from a programme or an ideology, but rather from a simple personal connection with something that is happening; they don’t identify with the Left or the Right of the political chessboard of the CT; instead they propose an open, all-inclusive, non-identificatory “we” in which there is room for all. Unconnected with any global utopian or alternative schemes for society, they don’t seek to destroy this world in order to build another, but rather to defend and enjoy the only world we have against those who would despoil it.

Thus, these “social movements that are not social movements” might be better described as Unidentified Political Objects. They’re difficult to detect with the radar of traditional critical thinking, due to the lack of purity in what they say and do, to the difficulty of including them alongside alternative or anti-system social movements. A few of us, the devoted abductees of these UPOs, have been tracking them for years. This unseen phenomenon of atypical politicization had its “close encounter” with the advent of the 15-M.

“No to the War”

What lit the spark of the massive protest against the Iraq war? Where did it come from? The strength of the “No to the War” movement arose from the fact that it repeatedly overwhelmed traditional forms of protest in the number and variety of people involved, the languages and ways of taking the streets, and the appearance of unforeseen political actors.

The official Left and its news outlets amplified the discontent, revulsion, and anger. They did not, however, create, induce, rouse, or provoke it. The alternative Left offered meetings, dates, and places where the malaise could be expressed and organized. It did not lead, shape, or give it voice. “No to the War” politically activated countless pre-existing forms of sociability revolving around affinities, kinship, life-styles, and so on. The protest penetrated the whole of society. It was impossible to marginalize or criminalize the protests by identifying them as the actions of “extremists” or “subversive groups.” This profoundly radical, decentralized, common ground unexpectedly set into crisis the CT’s basic conceptions of citizenry, democracy, participation, political representation, legality, public space, and so on, conceptions which heretofore had seemed so firmly entrenched. The mobilization was not only decentralized, it was also completely undefined. The “war politicians” were hounded wherever they appeared. The workplace was transformed into an impromptu debating room. Across the city of Madrid, demonstrations were prolonged in unforeseen ways, preventing an early return to “normality.” Numerous slogans were invented for the occasion, providing a common expressive space with room for everyone. The famous red and black stickers (“No to the War”) were seen everywhere, posters were hung from balconies, groups of friends or schoolmates produced their own banners. The epitome of this extraordinary process may have been the boy in Arganda del Rey who shouted “no to the war!” during a meeting with José Aznar, Spain’s Premier at the time, before being forcibly removed from the premises. In short, the mobilization combined the interruption of the monologue of power, the spontaneity and unpredictability of protest, the anonymity of its participants, a touch of “apolitical” naivety or innocence, and, naturally, the hysterical backlash of the powers-that-be.

Out of this rich magma new collective assemblages of enunciation emerged, as in the case of the Cultural Platform Against the War. The unusual Goya Prize ceremony had provided a real rallying cry at the beginning of the mobilization, as protest emerged from precisely the corner from which it had been least expected. Subsequently, the Cultural Platform, which brought together without distinction artists of all kinds and conditions (actors, technicians, musicians, etc.) was established. This group of culture workers played an important role in performing, with “natural” ease, some of the gestures that were to have a profound influence on the style and the imaginary of the demonstrations, including the protest inside Parliament, the banners with the faces of conservative MPs that were borne at the head of one of the big demonstrations, the black balloons of mourning that floated towards Parliament at the end of the demonstration that coincided with the entry of the American military in Iraq, etc. Unidentified political actors, indeed.

“We were all on that train”

Contrary to the view of those who were in a hurry to bury the “No to the War” movement, the power of those demonstrations did not diminish as a result of the sequence of events that followed the terrorist attack in Madrid on March 11, 2004. In the wake of the attack, the CT mustered together as one (gathering its notorious “sense of State”) to keep everything under control. Although the slogan of the official demonstration, organized by the government the day after the attack, was “with the victims, with the Constitution, for the defeat of terrorism,” the implicit message was: “everybody with their representatives.” Nevertheless, 11-M did not become another 9/11. Quite the opposite: the state of siege imposed on the news media failed to work, racism did not flare up, the security argument did not convince, and the lines dividing friends and enemies were erased, not reinforced. Fear, and appeals to the “power of salvation”–that is, the CT–failed to empty the streets. Instead, ordinary people who went out to express their grief and to protest refused to allow the form or content of their protest to be dictated, and in doing so they scuppered the monopoly on feelings and challenged the condition of “political death.” The hierarchical arrangement of the venues and actions of the CT was suddenly revoked: politicians lost their faculty to represent, the street refused to be silent, the media lost its ability to mould “public opinion.” Emotions could not be relegated to the sphere of privacy; for a moment, society was not primarily defined by “every man for himself,” but rather by a sense of what we have in common. A powerful upwelling of popular expression shook the monopoly on words — words of grief, of support, of criticism. Mixed, delocalized and wide-ranging words. Slogans, poems, and messages were written in every imaginable medium, place, and language, in improvised shrines, in the streets, and online. This taking control of words overwhelmed the authorized channels and their pet words for representation. At the top they talked about “Spain,”; on the ground they said “all of us are Madrid.” At the top they spoke about “the fight against terrorism,”; on the ground they called for “peace.” It was a discordant multiplication of the word, not arranged in the traditional collective categories of trade unions, political parties, community associations, or social movements. In the face of the monopoly of subjects, automatic reactions were challenged and questions were posed from the ground up: “who did it?” Suddenly, the type of cohesion constantly demanded by the CT became perfectly clear: it was the cohesion of troops or of a herd united by fear of the enemy. But the enemy on the 11th of March was indeterminate. Was it ETA, al-Qaeda, Basque nationalism, radical Islamism, or Arabs in general? The fact was that a war (an “illegal and unlawful” one) was being waged in Iraq. The fact was that the Spanish government had supported that war and sent troops to participate in it. The fact was that it had shamelessly lied about the causes of that war. The fact was that nearly half the victims of the terrorist attacks were immigrants, many of them Arabs. On the streets the name of the 13-M enemy was radically turned about: “the enemy is the war,” “Madrid = Baghdad.” Against the monopoly of memory, thousands of improvised shrines sprung up everywhere, while the official minutes of silence were ignored. No one was willing to let others prescribe what they should feel or when they should express it. This very clearly reflected a profound need for open channels of communication and interchange, free of the filters of politics or the media. Put simply, all the power of the CT — its politicians, its media, its experts, and its rituals — provided no help to those who wanted to think and feel freely about what was happening. In this way a whole culture was engulfed by crisis.

“You’re never going to have a house in your whole fucking life”

For months, an anonymous email spread like wildfire across the Internet. It called on people to come to demonstrations and sit-ins in the main plazas of Spanish cities on the May 14th, 2006. The objective: to protest against the catastrophic housing situation in Spain. Thousands of people responded to the call and came out to the plazas. The summons had not originated in a centralized manner, nor had it been arranged by any major group or organization. The call was not to protest against an enemy, but simply to provide expression for a state of malaise, a problem, with slogans like “mortgage = life imprisonment.” In a style that evoked the Mexican Zapatistas, the movement used catchwords, like “decent housing,” that were pointedly devoid of explicit political meaning. The sit-ins avoided politicization and the pigeonholing of the subject into Left against the Right or vice versa. “A chalet like ZP’s (José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero’s),” “a little flat like the little prince’s,” they demanded. They engaged with everyone and were well received by the public, with smiles, applause, and patient reactions to blocked thoroughfares. They didn’t resort to the urgent “don’t look at us, join us” that was to become one of the slogans used by the indignados of 2011 They took pains to avoid confrontation with the police, even in the wake of the brutal police charges and arbitrary arrests that took place during the second week of the sit-in in Madrid. “Your children have mortgages too,” demonstrators shouted at police. Irrespective of its power to draw people, the movement resisted its own ghettoization and in doing so helped to spread the joy. The movement chose a jokey name: “V de Vivienda” — literally, V for Housing — in reference to the comic book and film V for Vendetta. It did so because its aim was to avoid being named or represented or even identified. “V de Vivienda” had no deep meaning; it was just a funny name which–precisely because there was nothing special about it–allowed everyone to be involved. It’s well-known war cry, which had a profound impact on the social imagination, was “you’re never going to have a house in your whole fucking life.” It was a slogan which broke the common sense associated with the kind of slogans normally employed by social movements: it offered no hope at all (“yes, we can!”), no future (“for a future without poverty!”) and no alternatives (“another world is possible!”). It did, however, pinpoint and bring to light a collective malaise, which until that moment had been experienced–and suffered–in silence and alone. If what happened in the wake of 11-M activated the underlying imprint of “No to the War,” the 13-M demonstrations likewise had an obvious effect on V de Vivienda. A self-named, self-organized protest, it concocted slogans on the spur of the moment and was jubilantly regarded as welcoming anonymity and plurality, as providing an accessible, horizontal space in which there were no fights over the authority of its slogan. Its unity was based on listening to one another, since it was clear to everyone that the important thing was not what each person brought individually from their homes, but rather what they could create together. It was a mobilization that sought to communicate, be copied, go viral, and become widespread, and to investigate a common malaise underlying individual identities.

“Online Freedom”

At the end of 2009, the governing socialist PSOE party announced its intention to approve the Sinde Law. The objective of this legislation was to allow a committee, dependent on the Ministry of Culture, to shut down file-downloading websites, without trial, simply by obtaining a judge’s approval. The alliance between the culture industry, the star system, political parties, and mass media companies that came together to pass the Sinde Law revealed some of the power lines driving the CT, just as the unprecedented struggle against it, online and off, heralded the rise of a new social power. From the outset, the anonymous citizenry populating and constructing the Internet began to organize itself, without political parties or ideologies, in order to avoid the creation of an “Internet police” and to defend the Internet as a neutral, free, and common zone. The struggle ran roughshod over classic political dichotomies of Left and Right to bring people together around a single concern: the future of Internet as a space of freedom and interchange. From the activist group called Anonymous to the Right-wing blogosphere, opposition to the Sinde Law was at once so massive and so heterogenous that it proved impossible to identify, isolate, or criminalize it. The culture of transversal cooperation transformed the very obstacle of its internal differ-ences into an asset for the purposes of winning a particular fight. To a large extent the strength of Internet is that it has no representatives. Here and there a few influential people (bloggers, lawyers, etc.) may serve as reference points and may occasionally be invited to discuss matters with the politicians of the mo-ment, but they’re nothing more than temporary spokespersons for a collective intelligence, and they don’t think of themselves as “representatives” of the Internet or its users. Perfectly aware their legitimacy derives only from the fact that they know how to listen to what is happening online, they publicly convey the changes going on beneath the surface and, in the words of the Zapatistas, “give orders while obeying.” This is the exact opposite of how, for example, trade unions function in the world of labour. A union is a fixed, established, and self-referential organ of representation, one which subtracts from and undermines the power of those it represents. As Margarita Padilla has explained, today’s struggles no longer need a vanguard to lead the way, but rather groups to provide political tools while waiving their control over them. Activist groups like the Hacktivists and Anonymous, which played an important role in the fight against the Sinde Law, behave in precisely this fashion. Designing and setting in motion unfinished mechanisms, they let others act and make decisions, invariably trusting in the intelligence and independence of each individual node on the Internet.3 In spite of the fact that the proposed law was rejected by Parliament, that its wording was highly dubious from a legal and technical point of view, that the cables released by Wikileaks revealed it to be the consequence of pressure from the USA, and that it was being challenged by a massive social response, the governing PSOE insisted upon passing the law and finally managed to do so, thanks to the votes of the conservative Partido Popular and the Catalonian party CiU (Convergence and Unity). The law, however, is utterly delegitimized and dead on arrival; its approval revealed to all not only the basic unity between the establishment Left and Right with regard to the CT, but also a combined insensitivity towards public opinion whenever such opinion refuses to be exploited, not to mention a disdain for any political participation outside of established channels.

15-M: The art of vanishing

The CT is a power of representation, classification, and depoliticization. Against it, the “social movements that are not social movements” employ “the art of vanishing.” I am not referring to a style of disappearance, but rather to the sfumato technique which Leonardo made famous, blurring the outlines of shapes to achieve a misty effect in the work of art. This is the secret behind the famous mystery of the Mona Lisa: a rebellion against the sharpness and precise lines which predominated in the academic painting of the day, a positive acceptance of uncertainty and ambiguity, and an openness to change and the unexpected. To vanish is not to become invisible or to build one’s realities only on the fringes; it means to appear blurred, to camouflage oneself in the rules of the game in order to break them from inside, to blur classificatory divisions in order to cross the sociological and ideological boundaries that separate us, to create a protective mist against the labels that would stigmatize or criminalize us. That is also part of the strength of 15-M: its power of non-definition, of blurring. The movement blurs the traditional opposition between reformers and revolutionaries. Occupying all the public plazas in Spain is the most radical act since the spontaneous demonstration in front of the headquarters of the conservative PP party on the día de reflexión (the day before the general elections) in 2004. Paradoxically, this mass challenge has been built with the simplest of tools: non-violence, the idea-power of respect, de-politicized and humanistic language that is accessible to all, the search for consensus at all cost, positive treatment of the police, and so on. Without the element of conflict, the movement would be just another nice “alternative” lifestyle. Without its empathetic and all-inclusive character, it would be just another small, separate “radical” group out of touch with reality.

The movement blurs the classificatory power of stereotypes. Stereotypes are a technique and strategy used by governments, who seek to separate protestors from the rest of the population as though they have nothing in common. “You see, they aren’t normal, they’re violent, they’re hippies, subversives, in short, wolves in sheep’s clothing.” These stereotypes distance us from each other and keep us from sharing a joint space of recognition. They replace sensitive understanding with a prefabricated–and generally disparaging–image. The 15-M protests, however, proved to be very intelligent in this aspect; from the beginning they employed time and ingenuity to defuse the seductive power of labels that are wielded to divide ordinary people. “We are not anti-system,” they declared; “it is the system that is anti-us.”

The movement blurs the borderlines between inside and outside. The people who camped in the Plaza de la Puerta del Sol in Madrid knew from the start that their true strength lay outside the Plaza. In other words, their strength was in a living link to what a friend of mine calls “the motionless part of the movement,” namely the people touched and affected by events in the Plaza even though they have not taken a direct part in the camp. Those who did camp out in didn’t seek separation; they created numerous channels of solidarity, both within the camp and without (by the third day an announcement had to be made asking the people of Madrid to stop donating food because there was no longer anywhere to store it). It was never planned as a utopian “outside” or as another possible world, but rather as an invitation to strangers to come together as equals to join the fight.

The demand for clarity and precise description which predominates in politics is brought up short by 15-M. Is the movement PSOE or PP? Left or Right? Libertarian or social democratic? Apocalyptic or integrated? Reformist or revolutionary? Moderate or anti-system? It is, in fact, neither one thing nor the other. The nature of the movement raises as many intriguing questions as the Mona Lisa’s smile. There is no answer to the question, one inevitably raised by the police, about identity. Who are they? What does the 15-M movement want? 15-M is a political anti-political force: the movement poses radical questions about the ways of organizing communal life that overstep and disrupt the political chessboard of the CT. In order to neutralize its power of questioning, the movement must be assigned an identity: “it’s them,” “they want this,” and so on. Politicians and the media pressure 15-M to become a “reliable delegate,” armed with proposals, programmes, and alternatives at the ready. They know that once a phenomenon acquires an identity it loses its power to ask questions; the identity takes its place on the board (or aspires for one). It is transformed into a predictable factor in political calculations and power relations. It becomes, in short, governable. Old political practices have conspired, both inside and outside the movement, to try to bring to an end the movement’s power of indefiniteness. From outside by means of repression, by media coercion, by an insistence that “you must define yourselves” in order to be a serious political player; from inside by means of the fear of nothingness, by a fetishism for “results” (as though the results were not already embodied in the process itself), by the urgency in the rhythm of the demonstrations, as well as by ideological elements that would like the movement to be more explicitly something (a social movement, a left-wing movement or a revolutionary movement). Because of this, we must conclude by firmly declaring, as was observed at a meeting in the Plaza de la Puerta del Sol, that “haste and definition are our enemies.”


2. Maurice Blanchot, Escritos políticos, Madrid, Acuarela, 2010.