Saturday, October 15, 2011

Lessons From Barcelona

Barcelona, the city which was at the epicenter of the anarcho-syndicalist CNT-FAI before and during the Spanish Civil War, has a few lessons worth listening to with respect to organizing movements without (the hindrance of) leaders. I've long maintained that the only true political difference is not Right and Left, but rather authoritarians and anti-authoritarians.  In most cases, the former boils down to the presence of politicians and centralization, whereas the latter does not. Unfortunately, during the blood-drenched Twentieth Century, only the Iberians seemed to understand this fundamental difference and even then they fell into the trap of aligning themselves with so-called "progressives" like Stalinists, who quickly set about the undermine the revolution of 1936.  (It ended, during May 1937 in Barcelona.)  Since the 1930s, Barcelona has seen a number of other movements with an anti-authoritarian bent, so the older generations there indeed have something worthwhile to pass on (as opposed here with geezers droning on and on about boring stories of peace, love and acid).  Since May 15th, the citizens of Barcelona have organized along neighborhood lines, and appear to have developed means of keeping any political leaders from emerging.  Here an excerpt from Reflections for the US Occupy Movement that anyone involved in OWS should reflect upon:
All of these movements constitute lessons learned that can be passed down to aid future struggles. So often, the mistakes that defeat a revolutionary movement are repeated. The neighborhood assemblies in Barcelona serve as spaces where people from different generations can share their perspectives, where those with experience in past struggles can collectivize that experience and turn it into communal property. In the beginning, the organizers of the 15M movement presented their protest model as something ultra-modern, with more references to Twitter than to the country’s rich history of social movements. This model was rejected by many in Barcelona, especially older people or those who had already participated in a previous movement. People preferred to build off their own tradition of struggle, while taking advantage of the new situation and adapting certain features of the 15M model to their use.
The historical memory of past instances of bureaucratization, co-optation by grassroots politicians, and pacification have already served to help the ongoing movement avoid a number of pitfalls. Despite attempts to centralize them, the neighborhood assemblies remain independent and decentralized, allowing for a broader, freer participation, and meaning that politicians who attempt to take advantage of these spaces are at a disadvantage because they cannot operate openly without being kicked out of the assemblies.
As groups like and former civil rights activists turned politicians attempt to co-opt OWS for the Democratic Party, the lessons of Spain offer much needed wisdom to keep vile, disgusting politicians at bay.  (Certainly the original founders of the Tea Party and many of those suckered into voting for Obama might have also benefited from such advice, but that ignores the reality that far too many are authoritarians and therefore crave being told what to do.)

The piece goes on to identify further problems with the 99% concept that is worth reading:
The United States is also a country with inspiring histories of popular struggle. But it is a country with a case of social amnesia like no other. It seems that to a certain extent, the Occupy Wall Street actions exist more as a trend than anything else. The slight extent to which they draw on, or even make reference to, earlier struggles, even struggles from the past twenty years, is worrying. The fact that a present awareness of US history would shatter certain cornerstones of the new movement’s identity, for example this idea of the 99% that includes everyone but the bankers in one big, happy family, is not a sufficient excuse to avoid this task. The historical amnesia of American society must be overcome for a struggle to gain the perspective it needs.
There will always be reactionaries, not to mention authoritarians, and ignoring this certainty is done at one's peril.  However, this comment is telling in that most Europeans simply do not understand the cultural and social realities of US society and its cities in particular.   In Barcelona, neighborhood represent a force.  In the US, due it nature as a country of transients, most neighborhoods are just a collection of buildings.  It's a little hard to organize along such local lines when most do not even bother to know most of their neighbors.  Since much of what OWS is about is establishing tribes, as discussed in prior posts, the 99% tactic is a means of drawing people with common concerns and interests into a centralized focus.  It's about connections.  Technological means, like social media, are a poor substitute for face to face contact, but there are few other means for establishing relationships.

Anyway, ignore the past at your peril, but also do not try to make it fit your current circumstances.   The way is forward.

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