Manuel Castells

The disgust becomes a network.

Julio Albarrán

Audio version read by George Atherton – Right-click to download

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And all of a sudden the hollow singsong of the electioneering speech became unbearable. In the midst of an unceasing crisis, with 21% unemployment, 45% youth unemployment, cuts in living standards for many and fat profits for a few, impunity for the corrupt and privileges for a caste of untouchable politicians, the disgust became a network.

A little before the municipal elections on May 22, nolesvotes.org [literally, don’tvoteforthem.org] had 700,000 unique users, 154 blogs and 641,000 results on Google. In that atmosphere of outrage were germinated the ideas for the manifesto of Democracia Real Ya, a collective created in Madrid, which ended by saying: “An Ethical Revolution is necessary. We have put money above human beings and we must put it at our service. We are people, not products of the market. For all of the above, I am outraged. I believe I can change it. I believe I can help. I know that united we can do it. Come out with us. It’s your right.” And on May 15 they came out, tens of thousands of them, in Madrid, Barcelona and many other cities. At the end, in Madrid a few spent the night in the Puerta del Sol, and the following day some more in Barcelona on the Plaça de Catalunya. They talked, they dreamed and they tweeted their networks of friends. The next day they were hundreds. Then thousands. When they were evicted from the Puerta del Sol, many thousands more came. So many that when the Electoral and Constitutional Boards declared it illegal to “call for a responsible vote” during the day of reflection, the police could not impose it. The size of the acampada made it unviable. The acampadas proliferated in Spain and they extended through the world. On May 25, after the elections had been received with total indifference in this emerging society, despite the fact that it signaled the total collapse of really nonexistent socialism, there were 706 acampadas registered on the map of the globe.

They keep appearing as each locality adds its peaceful, festive and protesting demonstration to the networks weaved between cyberspace and urban space. Media attention helped to broadcast a phenomenon that everyone was in a rush to label, but that few politicians dared to condemn for the moment. It was not a case of the usual suspects. They come from all corners, conditions, ages and social groups. Look at the photos on the acampadabcn Flickr page to see the diversity. It soon became clear that there were no leaders. If anyone tried to be one, the acampada deauthorized it. While they were grateful for the services done by Democracia Real Ya, the campers did not accept any logos. In Acampadabcn it was decided that each person represented herself. Everything is worked out through functional, theme-based, autonomous multiple commissions, coordinated by an intercommission whose members rotate. The decisions that affect everyone go through the assembly at the end of the day. Motions, organization and tactics are debated. They are intense debates, carried out with respect, creating a new dynamic of gestures to avoid noisy expressions (in the spring air fluttered the hands that wave yes or the sullenly crossed arms of the noes). Swearing was forbidden. Drinking was counseled against, drugs rejected, though the matter is under debate. Any hint of violence is controlled; in the first ten days there was only one incident. Nonviolence is a basic principle assumed by all, tested when the authorities have grown tired of being overridden and have taken to dishing out beatings.

Once the elections were over, the movement extended, concretized and deepened. It extended through other cities and decentralized itself into neighborhoods, sketching out mini-acampadas that could even reach as far as places of work. It concretized with each acampada deciding its own objectives; and its organization and demands were decided. And it deepened through a growing concentration on the programmatic elaboration of objectives. On May 25, AcampadaSol released a document synthesizing the motions approved by the assemblies since May 16: elimination of privileges of the political class; measures to tackle unemployment, including job sharing and the rejection of the rise in the retirement age as long as there is youth unemployment; right to housing, including the expropriation of unsold housing stock in order to place it on the market under a program of protected rents; quality public services, including the elimination of wasteful administrative spending, the hiring of health and education workers, cheap and eco-friendly public transport; control over banks, constituting a public banking system under the control of society, with those entities that go bankrupt returning to public funds the capital they have received; fiscal reform, raising taxes on the very wealthy and on banks, and controlling fiscal fraud and capital movements; civil liberties and participative democracy, starting with the abolition of the Ley Sinde, which restricts internet freedom; protect freedom of information and investigative journalism; modifying the electoral law to put an end to political discrimination, including the representation of the null and blank votes; judicial independence, internal democracy in the political parties; reduction in military spending.

I cite these objectives to emphasize how concrete and reasonable they are, even though the immediate utopia of a different life is also present in many minds. But what is transformative is the process more than the product. It is the elaboration in open commissions and the decision taken in assembly. It is a new politics for exiting the crisis toward a new way of life built collectively. A slow process because, as a poster reads in Barcelona, “we’re going slowly because we’re going far.” So those who minimize the wikiacampadas still do not understand how profound they are. They may leave the squares, to return to them periodically, but they will not leave the social networks and the minds of those who participate. They are no longer alone. And they have lost their fear ... because they discovered new forms of organization, participation and mobilization that burst the traditional channels belonging to those whom a large section of society, and the majority of young people, distrust. Parties and institutions will have to learn to live with this emerging civil society. If not, they will hollow out from the inside while citizens move from wikiacampadas to that networked democracy yet to be discovered in a collective practice that finds its root in every person.

Manuel Castells' three volume, The Information Age, attempts an encompassing theory of the network society and the “informational guerrilla movements” who resist it. The above essay was translated by Hugh Green and originally appeared in La Vanguardia.