OWS Now What?

Insight from Spain's Indignados.

In his famous speech at Occupy Wall Street, Slavoj Žižek offered the people in attendance (and curious internet users around the world) an important warning in the form of friendly advice. “Don’t fall in love with yourselves. We’re having a nice time here. But remember, carnivals come cheap. What matters is the day after, when we will have to return to normal lives. Will there be any changes then?” For the indignados of the 15-M movement in Spain, the general election results of November 20th marked the start of the metaphorical day after.

This article is available in:

That the right-wing Partido Popular would take an absolute majority of the government with only a minor increase in votes due to the spectacular disintegration of popular support for the outgoing Partido Socialista was no surprise to anyone, especially the indignados. What may have surprised some, however, is the relatively low intensity of mobilizations since the right wing took office and, slowly but steadily, announced that they would implement the same neoliberal policies and violent austerity imposed by technocratic regimes in Greece and Italy. As Amador Fernández-Savater recently put it, the questions on a lot of peoples’ minds seem to be, “Where are all those people who occupied the plazas and neighbourhood assemblies during the spring? Have they become disenchanted with the movement? Are they incapable of making lasting compromises? Are they resigned to their fates?“

Fernández-Savater doesn’t think so. “With no study in hand and generalizing simply based on the people I know personally and my own observations of myself, I think that, in general, people have gone on with their lives… But saying that they’ve gone on with their lives is a bad expression. For once you’ve gone through the plazas, you don’t leave the same, nor do you go back to the same life. Paradoxically, you come back to a new life: touched, crossed, affected by 15-M.“ And as he so eloquently puts it, 15-M is no mere social organization, but “a new social climate“. But how does a social climate organize itself? What new possibilities have revealed themselves after months of self-management, cooperative civil disobedience and massive mobilization, and what remains to be done?

Over time, the wave of mobilizations that first hit the shores of the Mediterranean and extended outwards over the course of 2011 has overcome its initial, expressive phase. This phase managed to substitute the dominant narrative with our own. We now know that the problem is not some mysterious technical failure we call a crisis but the intentional crimes of a cleptocracy. This distinction is crucial: while the first suggests a management dilemma that opposes left- and right-wing approaches to the crisis, the second draws a line between the 1% who abuse power in order to steal from the people and those who refuse to consent and choose to resist in the name of the other 99%.

Having reached this point, the obvious question becomes, “Now what?“ Of course we should continue to protest together, especially if we choose to do so intermittently and massively, favouring a general critique of the system over particular causes. And at the smaller scale, that those specific struggles continue to take the streets is also desirable. However, it is fundamentally important that these struggles are not overly disconnected from one another or the more general movement; that they unfold beyond their own spaces (hospitals, schools, factories, offices and so on) and into the broader metropolitan spaces of cleptocratic dominance. These processes serve to keep the questions that guide the movement alive and, therefore, adapting to the always changing situations in which they operate. Yet the question of what alternatives we can provide remains.

The conquest of political power, particularly in liberal democracies, is not the most important task of social change. Political change tends to occur once social changes have already taken place. Thus, if what we desire is to change existing social relations and inequalities, it makes little sense to prioritize a change of political power with the hope that social change will be installed from above. Instead, the first challenge, as John Holloway once put it, is to “change the world without taking power“, to build and strengthen the alternative institutions of the commons.

By institutions, of course, we are not referring to the institutions of a political regime such as parliaments, executives and the like. Nor are we referring to those which may lie between the regime and the movement, such as political parties, unions or other organizations. We are referring to institutions which provide a foundation for the movement and are defined by their own autonomy: social centres, activist collectives, alternative media, credit unions and co-operatives. Institutions like these constitute no more and no less than material spaces in which we can articulate the values, social practices and lifestyles underlying the social climate change taking place all over the world.

In many places, these alternative institutions are already under construction. In Catalonia, the Cooperativa Integral Catalana, which serves to integrate various work and consumption co-ops in the region through shared spaces, education, stores, legal services, and meetings, already has 850 members, thousands of users and has inspired more “integral co-ops“ all over Spain. Meanwhile, in the United States, 130 million Americans now participate in the ownership of co-operatives and credit unions, and 13 million Americans have become worker-owners of more than 11,000 employee-owned companies, six million more than belong to private-sector unions. Over the coming weeks and months, we hope to explore some of these alternative institutions and the possibilities they open up for the 99%.

In their seminal work Empire, political theorists Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri examine the way in which a cleptocratic Empire controls people through what Michel Foucault called biopower: “a situation in which what is directly at stake in power is the production and reproduction of life itself“. In many ways, this is the force we are defeating when our experiences together in the streets, the plazas and the assemblies inform our daily lives and our decisions in the long run. The spectacular moments we share are an exhilarating, fundamental source of energy for the movement all over the world. They are also fodder for a sensationalist mainstream media which devours events to leave us with the superficial scraps of headlines, sound-bites and riot porn. But the revolution is not being televised precisely because it is happening inside and between us. We are moving too slowly for their sound-bites because we are going far, wide and deep. And, if we play our cards right, we will be in control of our time, our work and our lives before they know it.