SPAIN: Conversations with Anarchists in Madrid (pt1)
April 20, 2013
Interviews conducted by Jeremy – eds
There are massive social movements shaking Spain. In 2012 I spent six months living in Madrid and participating in anarchist and other movements. There are anti-austerity mobilisations virtually everyday, and at least monthly demonstrations which see tens of thousands in the streets. Many of these are organanised through the 15M movement, although the struggle for ‘control’ of the movement is ongoing. In November a million workers marched through the city as part of a union-led general strike. In many neighbourhoods there are weekly assemblies and frequent direct actions such as stopping people being evicted from their homes. There are hundreds of squatted houses and more than a dozen squatted, self-managed social centres in Madrid alsone. Millions of people are involved, from students and workers to 15M ‘Indignants’, anti-fascists and anarchists.
These movements are complex and diverse. There is a complicated interplay between Spain’s politically radical history and culture, and the current capitalist attacks in the name of the ‘crisis’. There is also a many-layered relationship between reformist and radical tendencies – the latter including anarchism, which is an undeniably significant force in the political landscape.
Rather than offering you my own incomplete observations and misunderstandings, I thought it would be better to present some interviews. So in December, I conducted 4 interviews with 5 anarchists. They have differing and sometimes overlapping perspectives – insurrectionist, social anarchist, syndicalist, and radical anarcha-feminist. The perspectives aren’t meant to represent the whole anarchist ‘movement’ by any means, but rather offer glimpses of anarchist ideas in Madrid at the moment. Three are presented below and the other two will be published as a separate article in the future. The subject of the interview below is broad: Spain, 15M and anarchism. The three interviewees below are all men. The second interview is with two radical anarcha-feminist womyn and focuses mostly on issues around gender and anarchism. I realise this is a very problematic division. It partly reflects problems within the anarchist movement in Spain (as the second article will discuss), partly space constraints in Mutiny, and partly the inadequacies of my own organising and language skills. I’m deeply sorry about that. I also apologise for any mistakes because of my poor Spanish. I’ve edited and changed expressions for clarity, but I’ve tried my best to maintain the sense of what people had to say.
Y is a student who has participated in lots of different political groups and squats. He recently lived in Greece for some time. Mario is an anarchist and a squatter. Kostas is from Greece and has been living in Madrid for 6 years. He is involved with a number of projects in the anti-authoritarian movement including the CNT.
The context and the crisis in Spain
Y: It’s very important to remember, that here in Spain we had a dictatorship that lasted for more than 35 years and only ended in 1975. Most of our parents were born when that dictatorship still existed. We’re all influenced by that. There is still a strong current of fear of, or respect for, authority, especially for people over 40. But on the other hand, we don’t have the same sense of identification with the State that they have in the UK for example. In the 80s and 90s there was a strong movement of autonomous groups. But it was repressed by a mix of drugs introduced by the State and extreme repression in the form of a brutal prison regime. The rate of incarceration in Spain has skyrocketed. In 1984 there were 8,000 prisoners; in 2012 there were 77,000.
Mario: The theme of the crisis is complex. It’s undeniable that we’re in a crisis. But in the history of capitalism, there have been many crises and they always use crisis as a tool to oppress the people. For example, with the crisis, they’ve achieved reforms that remove many of the rights of Spanish workers, and introduced a new penal code that is much more repressive. What was a small misdemeanour before – for example stealing something from the supermarket – is now a crime. The government is using the crisis as a way to unite people against a common enemy – just as has been done before with ‘terrorism’. It’s a social and political strategy for control. But at the same time, I don’t know to what extent the crisis is under control by the powers that be. Because it’s also creating a climate of dissatisfaction among people. Many collectives and assemblies are happening in the barrios. And the 15M movement arose with the crisis.
15M – the beginning
Y: 15M began with the 15th May 2011. Some days before the 15th, there was a demonstration organised by the group ‘Real Democracy Now’. ‘Democracy’ is a word that many anarchists in Greece reject, but here some still use it. So, some anarchists continued the demonstration to see what would happen, and there was a little riot, and some of them were detained. And in the process of defending the arrestees, the occupation camp at Sol began. Many people began to go, and within a few days hundreds of people were camped. And many of them were anarchists. It was complete chaos. The good thing was that what happened was spontaneous, in the beginning it wasn’t controlled by any political party.
Lots of people were there, from anarchists to right-wing people. It was a loud shout that ‘the world is not OK!’ And there was a sense that ‘we’re going to begin talking and organising ourselves to make something happen’.
But when you have something as open and utopian as 15M was, you’ll always get people trying to use it. People from political parties are like vultures. Most people here know that political parties are corrupt, even if they declare themselves close to them. The left parties are isolated, because many people of the left refuse to vote. So the parties are always looking for people to try to get them to join. They spread their tentacles in the movement, looking for a few members – people who are not confident enough to face a revolution without leaders.
Mario: From the beginning, 15M was useful for the State. My theory is that things were going very badly for the State in Spain. And 15M was used to manage the rage of the people. It was inevitable that people would go out onto the street. So the State had two options: show themselves as the enemy, or help the people to struggle in a manner that was useful to the State. 15M has been useful for inducing people to vote and for party campaigning. Both IU and the PSOE [the two major parties of the parliamentary left] have run campaigns presenting themselves as helping 15M, and have put their own sections inside the movement.
15M – tensions and decentralisation
Y: There comes a time when after you’ve discussed things, you need to think of an action. So, 15M began to separate into some tendencies. There were many nasty things, for example, when some people would be shouting a slogan or spray-painting, and others would shout ‘go away!’ ‘you’re a radical!’. This reflects the fear people have of being a ‘radical’.
Most of the people saw that if they really wanted to do something for the movement, or make the movement worth something, then what needed to be done was to decentralise it. It was so huge with so many assemblies, and hundreds of people in one assembly, that it was difficult to coordinate. Anarchists learned a lot in that time about assemblies, decentralisation, anti-hierarchical ways of organising. 15M was a practical lesson.
Through the decentralisation, they made the movement more effective and diverse, although it has to face different problems. And this is why the movement is still here, years later. That is something positive. Some of the 15M groups which weren’t dependent on the central assembly emulated anarchist actions. For example, the people of Carabanchel [a working-class barrio in the south of Madrid] have squatted a 15M social centre.
Mario: As I see it, at the time of the camp at Sol, there was a lot of tension inside 15M, among the Committees [which coordinate the 15M movement – eg the Committee for Animal Rights, the Committee for Feminism, etc]. And so the central occupation grew smaller and the assemblies in the barrios grew bigger. In the end the occupation in Sol was small and was evicted, and the nucleus disappeared. 15M lost force and was cemented into a marginal position.
15M – Now
Y: The repression of the dictatorship and post-dictatorship years helps to explain why 15M was so successful socially. But it also explains why 15M doesn’t use words like ‘communist’ and ‘anarchist’. For many years, these words were taboo. So 15M has a strong anti-system view, but doesn’t use the names of the ideologies that developed that kind of view.
But before, most demonstrations were single issue, and most anarchist demonstrations were made up of people younger than 30. Now, you have 50-year-olds on the street shouting that all politicians are corrupt and should be sacked.
Also, 15M groups have put direct action into practice. They have actually stopped loads of evictions of people who can’t afford to pay their mortgages. Without using the circle A of anarchism, they are putting anarchism into practice. It’s not really anarchists involved – although you never know. Maybe that old guy you see has been an anarchist all his life.
The strength of 15M is achieved by focussing as much as possible on the errors of the system. It makes people more and more fed-up with everything. But since they avoid political proposals, the position of the left-wing parties is left intact. 15M doesn’t make an anarchist proposal for the total self-management of society; this benefits the left-wing parties.
15M is not a success – because they’re reformist and focused on citizenship; they defend the State and support the police. But still, in my opinion, they are one step nearer to the ideals described by Kropotkinand other anarchists. Before, when people met an anarchist they might say ‘who’s this fuck?’, now they might say ‘I’ll give it a try.’ Before, people would say ‘the banks are stealing our houses and we can’t do anything.’ Now they say ‘with direct action we can.’
Kostas: For me 15M is a demonstration that, human beings are not naturally capitalist or authoritarian. 15M is proof (as anarchists and anti-authoritarians always say) that human beings are collaborative. 15M has proved that people don’t need a radical background. They naturally started to function in a horizontal and transparent way. As I have lived it, 15M is something positive. It is transparent and not a typical leftist movement with a ‘leader’. In my opinion, the Indignants movement in Greece is more superficial – it hasn’t evolved in the way it has in Spain.
There are anarchist comrades who criticise 15M, but in my opinion, they aren’t looking at its essence. We anarchists don’t need to be the sole representatives of anti-authoritarianism! We don’t have to be elitist like Marxist-Leninists. Anarchism is an idea without a trade mark. For me, a collective that functions in a horizontal way is good even if it is not identified as ‘anarchist’. It’s true that 15M are populist and reformist. They demand ‘clean the State’, and ‘we want politicians, but good ones’. The truth is that’s ridiculous. But we have to focus on the people who participate. They’re people who, in the past, would have delegated their
agency to a representative. Now they’re in an assembly deciding for themselves.
Mario: In my opinion, 15M has massive problems. In almost all the 15M Committees, there are secret police, politicians of a low level (members of political parties), and reformists of all kinds. Ironically, the Committee for Assemblies actually started to boycott and distance itself from the grassroots assemblies. The Committee for Communication monopolises the communications and puts forward their own perspective in the blog, the Facebook page etc. 15M is structured in a hierarchical way, with leaders, which is very dangerous.
15M has also introduced internal police – not secret police, but rather people involved in the movement who behave like police and control the movement. 15M always presents itself as ‘pacifist’, and calls this ‘respect’ – but it isn’t. I experienced their form of ‘respect’ during a demonstration when I was running away from a police charge, and then threw some stones. People from the same demonstration came to hit me and others for ‘using violence’.
Also, 15M has led to the growth of reformist tactics. They are always using signatures, petitions, requests for changes in the law. They never demand the destruction of the State.
Ultimately, 15M now consists of small assemblies in different barrios. The majority are very reformist. The movement doesn’t really exist.
Anarchism in Spain
Kostas: After the Spanish revolution in 1936, anarcho-syndicalism pretty much vanished. Right now, it’s good that we have some level of anarcho-syndicalist organisation in Spain, albeit small and limited. In Greece there’s nothing of the sort. Here there is the CGT – a more
reformist anarcho-syndicalist group that accepts money from the State, and has full-time, paid officials. The CGT also participates in workplace elections. The CNT on the other hand still functions in a more anarchist way. But there is currently a debate within the CNT about whether to collaborate with the more reformist unions – like the CGT.
In Greece, we have maintained our right to respond to the violence of the State – to defend ourselves against physical repression. But we need more social structures and anti-authoritarian organisations in other aspects of life, in order to go further. In Spain – like in the majority of the world – we don’t have the right to defend ourselves in the street against the State. But here there are, in an embryonic stage, some other things – for example, anarcho-syndicalism, projects in libertarian education, and 15M. Anarcho-syndicalists are trying to create horizontal structures at work, while 15M are trying to create horizontal structures in neighbourhoods. But anarchism is about more than workplaces or neighbourhood assemblies.
It’s about creating a libertarian culture, education, and whatever else exists in society. It’s about applying libertarian decision-making in all aspects of human life. And this still being developed. But, as they say, we shouldn’t be afraid of making small steps – we should be afraid of standing still.
Y: For years, in the media, anarchism didn’t exist. The powerful people here are very scared of anarchism, because of our history. When there are fights between neo-nazis and anarchists, they say ‘gang fights’. From the end of the dictatorship, anarchism in Spain was reserved for radicals and associated with violence and the youthful, punk style. When I was in Athens, I didn’t see a generational gap in the anarchist movement. But here, anarchists older than 30 years have been absent. The image of the young, rebellious punk has been the image of anarchism.
Now, you see the circle A everywhere. However some of us don’t use the term ‘anarchism’. In this social centre for example [La Gatonera], we don’t officially use the term, in order to make it more open to everyone. It’s a social struggle, so you have to open it up and go outside. Most of the squatted social centres here have social projects. That’s why they’re called ‘social centres’.
‘Centro Social Okupado Autogestionado’ represents key ideas for us. Firstly, ‘okupado’ – squatted, and everyone who comes here must know we squatted it, with all the political implications that involves. Also, ‘autogestionado’ – self-managed, meaning we don’t do things hierarchically, we do things horizontally. And ‘social’ because we want to share it.
Mario: I am quite pessimistic about the anarchist movement here. It’s small and divided. There are many personal and political problems, including sexism and authoritarianism within the movement.
In terms of strategies within the anarchist movement, a pattern has emerged of certain defined strategies that have been repeated many times in past decades: squatted social centres and houses; talks; concerts; practical workshops; and demonstrations. These 5 strategies are often combined in a ‘journada’ – a day or weekend of talks and workshops, that will also include a demonstration or occupation. They have good and bad aspects. We’ve been doing them for years and we do them well. In general I think they’re all important to spread ideas and create a point of encounter for other anarchists and people who want to unite with us.
But I see two big problems with these strategies. Firstly, there are people who make use of them for their own ends, and destroy them. For example, selling drugs in squats and concerts, or squatting to live for free, without political ideas. Secondly, the other problem is that we don’t do anything else. We are stagnant. The important thing for me is to do more. For me this means direct action in many senses. It also means serious danger. In Spain there do exist insurgent direct action groups. They’re coherent and act at a very concrete level, but they are also generally isolated. And they are far too few. We don’t have the mentality of direct action. And we don’t have good, secure methods of communication to create large-scale coordinated direct action that could create real problems for the State.
There is a 6th strategy, namely hunts of nazis. In fact, many anarchists start out in the movement with these actions, and continue to think of political action as hunting nazis. I think it’s good to expel nazis from the streets, but I don’t see it as the priority. I don’t see them as the real enemy. Enemies yes, but marginalised and small. It’s an error to focus our struggle on them. For many people (not only new, or young people), this is their only action. I see it as important, but the danger is stagnation.
I recognise that in Spain we have an anarchist movement that is more or less solid. It is like a rock with cracks in it. We have serious internal problems. But we have a strong movement of squatting – above all in Barcelona, but also in Madrid. We also have a strong culture – of music, zines, books, information to share and relationships between areas that connect lots of different people. We have a web. It is weak, but it exists.