Social centers and democratic revolution: The main contribution they can make right now is to put their many years of experience on the table
by Xavi Martínez This article is a collage of ideas from people in the Ateneu Candela (Terrassa), and several texts by people linked to other social centers*
posted at diagonalperiodico.net as the website of the fortnightly Diagonal newspaper, May 21, 2015, as "Centros sociales y revolución democrática"
We cannot, and should not be what we are not. As Subcomandante Marcos says, "Practices should think about themselves, instead of theory thinking about the practice." So we go ahead thinking about ourselves.
In our cities there are some spaces where the same people work, with autonomy, and hence beyond both institutional logic and that of the market. These are places of meeting, of daily life and of collective projects: an urban community garden, a cooperative bookstore, a pub for the youth in a neighborhood, a P2P laboratory, a community center full of life, etc.
The Ateneu Candela is one of these. This social center was born 14 years ago in the city of Terrassa (provinnce of Barcelona), in an old textile factory renovated collectively. Unlike the political parties or classic organizations it does not require affiliation; membership in the social center is built on participation -- a lot of people participating in many initiatives like a cafe, a bookstore, a consumer cooperative, meeting rooms, a stage for performances.
The engine of a space like the Ateneu Candela is its people in motion, and it is these people that support it. People inhabiting the community center have many ways to participate. It is their nearest community. Social centers are also interconnected in a larger network: La Casa Invisible in Málaga, La Pantera Rossa in Zaragoza, Katakrak in Pamplona, El Patio Maravillas and la Villana in Madrid, and many others.
All these social centers are open spaces in the city. We are not talking about places for a group of similar people, but for many people who in their diversity recognize each other as equals in the face of the becoming-precarious of their lives, and who cooperate with each other. They are places for living well, where people stand up for their rights with joy, and contribute to the transformation of the city and their lives.
Social centers in general have been, and still are meeting spaces for dozens of projects and initiatives -- political, cultural and social -- which have generated many networks of people and groups, promoting forms of cooperation among equals. For many years we have demanded our "right to live in a city that is not subordinated to the interests of a few"; we have put other ways of living our lives into practice and under experiment.
After the 15M [movement of 2011], participation in the social centers grew, and the list of people and groups who use the Ateneu Candela as a meeting place has not stopped growing. The place is currently gaining strength everywhere, with the chance to take on the 'mafia', and attack the institutions that have been captured by the 1% over the years, at different levels and with various brands.
This is happening also at the local level, with a new wave of citizens candidates standing in elections for local government. In many of these new electoral platforms people linked to social centers are involved. And conversely, many of the citizens engaged in these campaigns have begun to participate in social centers.
¿Surprise? No. Although some now have rushed to sound alarms about this -- we are living a democratic revolution. Not only here in Spain, but throughout Southern Europe, the Mediterranean, and this revolution has even reached Hong Kong. The 15M movement began here in Spain. In the social centers and elsewhere, people around the Ateneu Candela made up the crowds and the power in the public squares. And as noted above, many people in the streets began to participate later in the social centers or other public spaces, including the Ateneu. The same democratic revolution that began with the 15M, is now embodied in the new citizen candidacies: the 99% is doing politics and struggling for their lives in multiple connected ways.
We can ask a few questions about all this: How do the people of the social centers position themselves in the midst of this effervescence of real democracy? What can we expect from this cycle which is shaking the elections and opening institutional spaces? Are we not going to need these spaces of autonomy once citizens with the DNA of the 15M movement fill elected offices and institutions? What can we contribute?
We stand together with the 15M: close, but in a different way. We are close because we are part of the democratic revolution, and we want real democracy now. And in different ways -- as many ways as the diverse people who participate in the different spaces. Social centers like the Ateneu Candela, unlike traditional parties or some classic political organizations, do not require membership, and affiliation is built from that same concrete participation. It is not a fixed organization, but rather is involved in multiple projects or initiatives. This allows, in turn, multiple forms of participation.
With the democratic revolution we hope to retake the city from the hands of the 1% and return it to the people. We want to win the right to the city, and secure a real democracy. Because we are not merchandise. We know that is not enough, but it is what we have long been committed to achieve. However, we are not naive. As Déborah Ávila and Marta Malo say, "the institutional assault is not the only way," because in addition to the 'ceilings' of the mobilization, new 'ceilings' appear when it comes to institutions. "There is no doubt that the institutions could improve the lives of the majority, but we also know that not all social models, lifestyles and behaviors today, emanate from institutions." Real democracy would take center stage and would accelerate when people massively break into the institutions which have been hijacked by the interests of a few, and return them to the service of the 99%. But when this happens "it will require a mobilized society that continues to create other tangible sustainable ways of living".
Social centers have been, over the last decade, places of experimentation in new city models based on social rights, in different forms of democracy at the local level, and new ways of understanding culture and access to it, or in laboratories of free software and digital fabrication. These laboratories for innovation in production based on common goods [los bienes comunes], have resulted in experimental apparati of creation and production, de-precarization and empowerment.
Since the Casa Invisible of Málaga, we think that the main contribution that social centers can make at this moment is to put on the table their years of experience in "challenging the traditional institution from the perspective of the commons". One of the great challenges facing different municipal leaders is that of building new institutions: the experience of the social centers is shaping up as something quite valuable in that task.
We think like our friends in Malaga. As Felipe G. Gil notes, the "inhospitable" public institutions have much to learn from the "open and inclusive operations that occur in communities not invaded by the very bureaucracy of public institutions". Social centers, and their practices related to the management of the commons, have generated tools that can revolutionize the institutions and public spaces, such as "protocols and methodologies that promote inclusion, hospitality, openness and connection."
Social centers are spaces which permanently interrogate themselves. They walk while wondering, and don't have problems when it comes to changing the space itself, nor their ways of making and organizing, nor building alliances. One of the big deficits of political institutions in deep crisis lies in their rigidity, their inability to regenerate, to innovate, to correct what does not work and reinforce what does. Social centers bring fresh air to this issue, creating living, dynamic social processes that permanently transform, adapting to changing times, but also providing storage, buildup [acumulación], shelter -- in difficult times -- and openness and change as the times require it, always fleeing from dogmatism with an unquestioning loyalty to autonomy.
It will be critical that the social centers organized by citizens continue to exist with their own independent character. As Felipe G. Gil says, "it is time that public institutions learn how to care for and manage the common goods of the social centers". Civic institutions and public facilities should use the management tools of the peoples' spaces and come to resemble them. These places should rethink themselves, and learn from citizen movements, some of which live in social centers. Governments should listen and obey their people while working for a better city.
Now, those who want to storm the institutions to get rid of some and put others in their place should think again. This is about bringing democracy to the people. Real democracy and institutions that are of the majority is a challenge that has only just opened up, and therefore it is vital that "social centers organized by citizens continue to exist with their own independent character."
The city that we imagine is full of spaces that move people, with autonomy, common areas of life for people and collective projects that transform the city to make it better. One or more in each district, with its wealth and particularities. Places that can be developed as they deserve without having to continually suffer the scarcity of resources to survive or simply have a roof to develop. Projects with their own resources and publics -- which are the people -- to deploy all their transforming power.
Centros sociales y revolución democrática, by Xavi Martínez posted May 21, 2015 at: https://www.diagonalperiodico.net/la-plaza/26808-centros-sociales-y-revolucion-democratica.html
Translation by A.W.M.
*Link posted at "nyctospain.com" report on the visit of NYC activists to Spain during the May 2015 elections with the following comment: "Great article exploring the role of social centers in the "municipalist" revolution from our friend Xavi Martinez who we met a few days ago (and some of us have known for years). He's a leader from the PAH, active in the Ateneu Candela, and as of yesterday, a council member in Terrassa!"