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Interview with an Indignado in Dissent

(publicado en Dissent)

This interview, conducted by Baptist Brossard, first appeared in December at the French online daily and is republished via a creative commons license. The interview has been only slightly edited, omitting some “inside baseball” of Spanish union politics.

On May 15, 2011, a wholly original protest movement began in Spain, Los Indignados, “The Indignants.” The movement’s launch left more than a few thinkers out of conceptual gas. Nothing to do with traditional strikes and union marches, or ordinary political demonstrations: the initiative seemed to come “from below,” from “the people,” without an organization having figured out, in advance, either a practical or ideological plan. Despite some strong resemblances, the movement wasn’t “alt-global” or libertarian-anarchist either. How then do we define this ungraspable phenomenon, which has since spread throughout Europe?

Our lack of concepts is revealing. It testifies to our enclosure within a dominant discourse of politics, which hammers us over the airwaves with the idea that only one way of politics can be “realistic,” while any other kind could only be the futile dreams of a fistful of permanent adolescents. Once we admit, however, the Indignados’s attention to the maintenance of internal discipline (avoiding violent outbreaks, showing their responsibility as much during demonstrations as by the tone of their arguments), their inscription in local communities (occupying public spaces, integrating themselves into neighborhood life), and the way they set out to have rational discussions, we end up pretty far from the usual clichés about the Left.

It seemed obvious, in retrospect, that we’d meet someone like José Luis Moreno Pestaña: philosopher and empirical sociologist, he’d worked first on the career and writing of Michel Foucault, then on questions of mental health, before joining the Indignados when they got off the ground in Cadiz, his city, and then in Seville. Gifted with both the engagement of an activist and the self-distance of the researcher, he’s delivered for us several reflections from inside the movement. And it’s not just by chance that our interview took place on Facebook—a method of communication that, as we’ll see, indeed connects to our subject.

Interviewer: Can you start by telling me where the movement is at right now?

JLMP: The effects of the movement can be measured in two aspects: on the one hand, through its assemblies, which are the movement’s innovation at the organizing level; and, on the other, by its public demonstrations. From the standpoint of the demonstrations, the movement’s capacity is enormous, much larger than if it had restricted itself to the people who participate in the general assemblies. In the same vein, polls show that the majority of the population supports the movement, which goes to show that the complexity of political positions taken by real persons cannot be mechanically translated into the existing reality of electoral politics.

Interviewer: Let’s go back for a second to your own involvement. From the beginning, you’ve followed the assemblies and demonstrations in Cadiz. Can you tell us more about the assemblies? How do they work?

JLMP: I attended the Cadiz assemblies during the first fifteen days of May, and, in June, I was in Seville. The assemblies are held in public spaces. Sometimes we hold assemblies of the whole city, but the weekly assemblies are done by neighborhood. Every week there are coordinating meetings for all the assemblies in the city. The representatives change every three weeks, since the objective is to put in place a collective apprenticeship in how to acquire activist “capital.” We learn how to speak in public, how to debate, to synthesize the positions that emerge. In each assembly there are labor committees, “worker conflict” committees, “communication,” “education,” “city politics,” etc. Each week we see what’s happening and try to find a space to debate politics together (neoliberalism, basics of democracy, issues more specific to each city). This can be difficult sometimes, since maintaining the democratic process in this kind of work takes time. The assemblies are really an enormous labor toward forging a more moral civilization: disciplined public speaking, respect for the person speaking, resolution of conflicts, avoiding the traps of verbal violence or contempt for others. In this sense, the assemblies help us to understand the necessary subjective conditions needed to create a true democratic public space, and they help the participants to acquire competencies either in speaking out or in reflection, without saying whatever comes to mind, without trying to pass ideas by force of imaginary consensus. The labor of organization is, in this way, political work in each and every part, and the movement’s philosophy can be known by its actions.

Interviewer: But exactly how would you define this philosophy by action? Does it attach itself to any preexisting currents of thought? Also, are these principles—those which tend toward “a collective apprenticeship to the acquisition of political capital”—made explicit by the participants?

JLMP: It’s a philosophy in which one can pick out libertarian elements (the assemblies), liberal elements (defense of separation of powers and judicial independence), socialist elements (defense of the welfare state), and ecological elements. For most of the people, evidently, the debates don’t exist at the theoretical level: it’s about how to make the positions taken by our elected representatives adequate to the positions of those they represent, the defense of public goods against what David Harvey calls “accumulation by dispossession.” Secondly, I don’t think we should over-classify. The consciousness exists that we’re making something new, something that can’t be reduced to former schemas. What’s most explicit is the rejection of a politicking type of politics and of savage neoliberalism: we’ve already opened a sufficiently rich space for shared action and reflection.

Interviewer: Could we also see the movement as one that enthrones direct democracy over representative democracy?

JLMP: Yes, it’s clear, even if I’d be a bit more cautious, since I find the critique of all forms of representation too facile…All the people can’t be mobilized all of the time, and representation starts to impose itself in practice. Furthermore, governing one’s representatives can’t be limited to making them look like clowns. In the end, rational deliberation requires that the positions of the represented be coherently reformulated, and doing that would mean changing the mandate of the assemblies. But, I’m speaking more as a professor of political philosophy than as a member of the movement. In any case, it’s a movement that proposes restoring public space as a central dimension of everyone’s experience. It’s the strongest resistance that we can muster to oppose capitalism in the predatory form it has taken today.

Interviewer: How do the classic structures of social opposition (unions, extreme left-wing parties) position themselves with respect to the movement?

JLMP: I think one shouldn’t generalize, but most of the extreme left parties have given their support; there are certain leftists who see the movement as a mess and a plot by the forces of Capital to undermine the real revolution. The more open-shop, anarcho-syndicalist unions have members who are deeply involved in the movement. Other unions say they share our objectives, but some of our participants would like to see them show a stronger commitment. The movement, however, is not partisan, it’s not a labor movement, it’s political.

Interviewer: Among the numerous innovations of the Indignados, does one find the use of new technologies? Do these technologies play a decisive role, as during the “Arab Spring?”

JLMP: Yes, the worst part of the movement is that it requires you to spend too much time on the internet! This allows us some gains in efficiency, but also introduces some pretty strong generational splits. Furthermore, we’ve experienced that the practice of democracy via the internet has its inconveniences. It seems to me that, without a physical presence, discussions become less concrete and more aggressive. They are even more subject to the typical styles of debate that take place in the usual political and intellectual fields: hard-line position-taking at the theoretical level, lack of clarity when it comes to the practical consequences of arguments…I’m afraid that, online, speakers are possessed by phantasms of theoretical and political omnipotence—since one is speaking for an audience and to conquer a share in the market of cultural capital—if they don’t see the other person face to face, her emotions and her vulnerability, the embodiment of her practical rationality. In virtual space, unreason and unreasonableness are more of a threat than in debates when bodies are present.

Interviewer: Do you mean to say that on the internet discussions become violent more easily, which goes against the movement’s objective to remain nonviolent?

JLMP: Yes, I think it’s true, unless one actively works to frame the debate and works at self-governance through careful writing. The fundamental originality of the movement rests on the public encounters it generates, the theoretical and political effervescence that these produce, the pleasures of having good discussions with strangers. Without these concrete, bodily interactions there can be no democratic life and no way to produce rituals that create positive social encounters.


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