I am here in Minneapolis to work on spreading ideas and tools around the municipalist movement in Spain and Europe. This will involve producing some publications for a U.S. audience which contain different perspectives on the development of popular political power in cities – how it can be done, and most importantly I think, how it can be thought. Citizens in the U.S. I believe have rather limited ideas of how political processes work and how they develop. These ideas are continually reinforced by the mainstream news media, and bound in by seemingly immutable laws of U.S. politics, i.e., representational government. Other worlds are not only possible, they have existed for quite a long while.
The first challenge for my U.S. comrades is to think past the problem of President Trump. In the USA, mainstream discourse suggests that our institutions, our democratic institutions like courts, the media, and just a general sense of what is, as the 18th century founders of the U.S. called “appropriate” attitudes and behaviors will hold this neo-fascist and his comrades in check until a new and more reasonable government can be voted in. The media reinforces the idea that at the top level of state power everything is going, well, more or less normally along. Trump is weird, but things are fine.
A large number of those activists who are making change no longer believe this. Trump is seen as a symptom that reveals the disease, a giant suppurating sore on the face of a system called neoliberal capitalism, which lets us know that the underlying process is very unhealthy. Indeed it is mortal for the planet.
Over 20 years ago, a movement called the Zapatistas in the Mexican state of Chiapas launched a defensive rebellion, a secession from Mexico, on the day the NAFTA free trade agreement went into effect. Independent U.S. presidential candidate Ross Perot said that once the NAFTA treaty was passed, you would hear “a giant sucking sound” as U.S. jobs went south across the border towards the low wage nations. We live with those consequences today. As bad as it has been for U.S. workers, Bill Weinberg wrote that NAFTA was a “'death sentence' for Mexico's Indians—who stand to be forced from traditional lands by agribusiness and development projects. Drawing inspiration from Emiliano Zapata's followers, who rose up elsewhere in Mexico in 1910 against a dictatorship that embraced free trade policies, the neo-Zapatistas were the world's first guerrillas to explicitly take up arms in response to a trade agreement.”
The Zapatista movement has had a strong and continual influence on the left in Europe and North America. How did this group of Mayan peasants in remote villages inspire activists in large Western cities? They were one of the first movements to use the internet as a media platform, so they were heard far and wide. Their charismatic, poetic spokesperson – he denied being a leader – Subcomandante Marcos specified their analysis. “Globalization, neoliberalism as a global system, should be understood as a new war of conquest for territories,” he wrote in 1997. It is a strange modernity that moves forward by going backward. “In the world of the post-Cold War, vast territories, wealth, and above all, a qualified labor force, await a new owner.” This, he said, is the “Fourth World War.” [Weinberg, URL, op. cit.]
The Zapatistas, called international meetings, “encounters” in their jungle home, and spread their message and tactics of resistance. Their primary tactic was to build what they called “counter power”: infrastructure for their people. Instead of trading bullets with Mexican federal soldiers, the Zapatistas accepted their military losses, and concentrated on building hospitals, transport and communications operations. They developed a fully articulated state within a state.
The Zapatistas' 1994 announcement inspired the Global Justice Movement. Also called the “anti-globalization” movement, these activists staged massive protests at the sites of international trade, finance and government meetings throughout the world, most held in cities.
Like the Zapatistas, their message was the terrible damage that global trade agreements were doing to local economies and social fabrics.
Today Barcelona en Comu, the citizens' party which has recently won the mayoralty of that city, is doing something similar, traveling around, and spreading the word about their electoral success in that Spanish city, and the tensions and strategies they are using as they govern. The Zapatistas, meanwhile, have announced they intend to field a female Native American candidate for president of Mexico.
So in both Spain and Mexico there is a turn to electoral strategies at a moment when it seems that social-minded localists may have enough votes to actually get some traction within a system of representational democracy.
But that is not where they started. The Zapatistas of 1994 walked their ideology and volition back to Emiliano Zapata, a practical revolutionary and general. In his brief term as a governor in 1910, Zapata redistributed fraudulently appropriated hacienda lands to the peasants, and allowed village councils to run their own local affairs.[Wikipedia, “Emiliano Zapata”] Although he was assassinated, today he is a Mexican hero. Marlon Brando played him in a film written by John Steinbeck.
Actually the idea of a revolution that begins in the countryside, in isolated villages, and ends up having a global impact and inspiration around the world is pretty unusual. The struggles of the Zapatistas, like their namesake Emiliano Zapata, are based in land and local autonomy -- keeping out exploiters and developers, international mining companies and the like, and protecting the traditional rights of peasant farmers, most of them Mayan, not Spanish-Mexican.
In contrast, the most consequential revolutions in the West for centuries have all begun in cities.
Boston, 1775, a thriving port of whalers and traders, and the flash point for the North American colonial revolution.
Paris, 1789, the capitol of France and site of its royal palaces, and the storming of the Bastille prison to set free political prisoners.
Paris again, in 1871, under attack by the Germans, the government running away, the citizens take over the city for a few brief months – called the Paris Commune. The government returns, and thousands of citizens are executed.
Petrograd, now St. Petersburg, 1917, the capitol city of czarist Russia, sees an armed insurrection turn state power to the workers' councils, the signal event of the Russian Revolution – (the centennial is this year).
And so on – Berlin in 1919, an uprising of reds called Spartacists suppressed at the government's request by the Freikorps, precursor of the Nazi SS.
Budapest, Hungary, in 1956, a rising against the communist government put down by the “friendly” Russian Soviet army.
The Watts district of Los Angeles in 1965, the National Guard called up to put down a revolt of African Americans incensed about police violence.
Paris in 1968, the most romantic of 20th century urban revolutions, with artists and intellectuals taking the lead.
Mexico City 1968, students demanding rights slaughtered by the hundreds in the central square of the city as the Olympic Games were about to take place.
Detroit in the same year, after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., a riot requiring the National Guard. Many other U.S. cities saw the same.
Beijing, 1989, the student and young people's encampment in Tianamen Square suppressed by the army and activists hunted down and imprisoned.
There are many many more of these major events. And I started arbitrarily with the touchstone of the U.S. revolution, one of the few which mainstream media delights to recall. That was not at all the first of such events.
Nearly all of these events, these revolts, uprisings and revolutions, found a context in severe political and usually economic crisis. In only a few did they result in substantive change in the form of government. But indeed, their failures – the fall of the Paris Commune; the failure of the Kronstadt rebellion of sailors and anarchists against the emerging Bolshevik communists; the brutal suppression of the Watts rebellion; the failure of Paris '68 even to bring down the president De Gaulle; the ruin of the hopes of the Chinese students – became in many cases the raw material for countless legends and family stories, tales of the hopeless love and sacrifice of so many people for freedom and democracy, and the fatal and life-shattering consequences when the authorities intervened.
The left revolutionary now really almost expects to fail. The quest for freedom is always a tragedy. The life of this increasingly tiny minority of political activists is a continual marination in bitterness and critique, with sporadic flashes of hope which quickly darken over. This is the texture of what we call the revolutionary imaginary.
What started to happen in 2011, however, was really rather different. It began in Tunis, capitol of Tunisia, and spread quickly to Cairo in Egypt. The Arab Spring of popular demonstrations, crucially started by women with cel phones, actually achieved results. They displaced dictators who had been considered invincible. (Moving forward, most of these uprisings, particularly in Syria and Libya, have had rather dismal outcomes – so far. The impulse to freedom of these populations will erupt again.)
When this revolutionary democratic movement spread to Europe, and then to the USA, it also had political consequences. In Athens, particularly in Greece, successive governments were brought down by good old fashioned general strikes, riots and street battles, until finally the Greeks ended up with a neo-socialist government called Syriza in power. That has been at the least a young more-or-less honest face on the national helplessness before the financial imperialism of the European Union and the implacable German banks.
Spain, also punished by the austerity of the crisis that followed the 2008 collapse of global credit, saw a massive encampment of the indignant ones – the “indignados” in the enormous central plaze of Madrid, the Puerta del Sol.
This was followed not too long after by another encampment in downtown New York City, the Occupy Wall Street. (Visiting Spanish, Arab and Greek activists were closely involved in that project, by the way.)
The first of these camps I saw was the 15M in Madrid, named after the day it was set up, the 15th of May. To me it all seemed very familiar. The camp was well-organized, with large tents for special purposes, informing the public of the aims of the occupation, welcoming new campers, cooking and serving food, taking care of injuries, cleaning and policing, a library, a children’s area, and so on. Why was it familiar to me? Because the organization of the 15M camp in the plaza, like Occupy Wall Street in the fall of 2011, followed more or less the way in which large building occupations have been carried out in Europe for decades. That's what I've been studying for more than 10 years – squatting, specifically squatting as a political movement.
Here I backtrack a little to Milan, Italy in the 1970s. A new kind of leftist movement emerged called Autonomia, theorized by dissident communist intellectuals. The activists of Autonomia came by their name because they were independent of the Italian Communist Party, which held many positions in government. The militants of Autonomia were made up of many southern Italian young people who had migrated north for factory jobs. The Autonomists called strikes without permission of the Communist union bosses. They carried out strikes on municipal services and commercial businesses in the form of direct theft – what they called “auto-reduction” of bus fares and organized shoplifting of food.
Most importantly for my story the Autonomists of Milan and other cities occupied empty factory buildings. (Italian capitalists were already moving their businesses to escape these rebellious workers.) They called them social centers – centros sociales. One of the first was Leoncavallo. The Leoncavallo social center was opened – or “kraaked” as the Dutch word has it – in order to provide social services that the government would not: health services, child care, food cooperatives, cultural facilities, all of them run by collectives of citizens who took these jobs upon themselves.
Leoncavallo was only one of dozens of social centers opened by the young immigrant workers and their allies in Milan. The idea quickly spread, first to other cities in Italy, and then to the rest of Europe. The city of Amsterdam in Holland already had a squatting movement since 1969, when the activists and hippies of the Dutch Provo movement started it. (The Provos, by the way, are another revolutionary group which moved into city government, after changing their name to the Kabouters.)
The example of the Italian Autonomist social center was very simple: to take a large building and create a citizens' center open to projects which anyone could propose, subject to the approval of an assembly of those who were maintaining the center. They called this self management auto-gestion. The places they squatted were called CSOAs, centros sociales occupados autogestionados in Spanish, which followed the Italian model.
Since the middle 1970s throughout Europe the example of the Italian social center has been imitated and refined. Generations of activists have found a new purpose in squatting – not only to find a place to live for a while for no rent, but to open and work in a place to do exactly the kind of activism, social or cultural, which you want to do. This is a history of decades of both altruistic and playful illegal activism which really very few people know about.
A question for the class is why? We can discuss afterwards. [Answer: Mainstream media, indebted to property interests for support, will not report it.]
The Italian Autonomists had a very specific word for their kind of activism. They called it “extra-parliamentary” opposition politics. That meant they did not try to run candidates in elections, either nationwide for parliament or for city councils – and they did not try to take over labor unions. They organized separately, outside of existing institutional structures like governments and labor unions, and did not ask permission or coordinate their direct actions with the powers that be. That way they preserved all their energies for their direct action organizing, which is demanding in itself.
This ideology was not without consequences. The Autonomia movement was destroyed. An alliance of convenience between right wing Christian Democrats and Communist judges and government officials succeeded in imprisoning many of the leading theorists and activists – college professor Antoni Negri is the best known – and sending many others into exile. (Franco Berardi, aka “Bifo”, lived in Paris and New York during the years of repression.)
Even so, this political model spread in Europe. Germans particularly took it up, forming groups called Autonomen, which supported demonstrations dressed in black and ready to fight police. The signature of an Autonomen demonstration was the burning car, adding an extra hazard to parking in Berlin.
One of the most frequent causes of German Autonomen demonstrations during their heyday in the 1980s was the eviction of squats. The slogan, “One eviction a million Euros of damage” often slowed down police and inclined city governments to negotiations.
Over decades, what the model of extra-parliamentary direct action achieved was a network of large building occupations which provided spaces for organizing politically, socially and culturally throughout Europe.
The CSOA social centers provided meeting places for the Global Justice Movement to organize their movement and to prepare their major demonstrations against international trade and financial meetings.
The CSOAs were also the infrastructure of subculture. During the 1990s the idea of the social center was taken up by punks, who didn't especially like old hippies and tiresome communists, so they squatted their own centers. In the 2000s free party people, electro-beat ravers didn't like the mosh pits and crusty dirt-love of the punks so they took over their own places. There always seemed to be enough abandoned buildings to go around...
… until fairly recently. As David Harvey has pointed out, contemporary capitalism is in a crisis because of the declining rate of profits. The crisis of '08 was brought on by the crazy speculation of banks seeking profits in newly created casino markets (derivatives, hedge funds and the like). While that hasn't stopped, governments have slowed it down. So what to do? The main problem, Harvey says, is that there's too much money sloshing around with too few profitable places to put it. That's why capital is flooding into cities, especially the “global cities”. Developing property for rich buyers and renters delivers a high rate of return in a difficult market for investment. He calls this “rent seeking,” and it's made vacant properties in city centers very desirable. Even state-owned social housing is being sold off to developers as it finds itself in the expanding center of global cities.
All this means that the sites of popular autonomous political organizing, the social centers, have been under great pressure. Squatting in the center of global cities has become nearly impossible, and difficult everywhere.
Activists in the Middle East and Europe turned to public space to organize mass demonstrations and encampments – long-running open-ended demonstrations to achieve extra-parliamentary pressure on oppressive governments.
These camps mobilized far more than the communists, hippies, punks and ravers who had opened all those dirty, rough-looking COSAs in the past. The 15M movement in Spain was made up of many young people who simply could not find jobs in the depression conditions of austerity government with double-digit unemployment. They did not have an immediately recognizable ideological position. “They don't represent us” – that was a major slogan, and they meant this first in opposition to the duopolistic Socialist-Popular Party consensus that dominated Spanish politics and colluded with the European Union in imposing austerity. But the “indignados” of 15M did not look to the United Left (IU), communists and left socialists which form a minority party in Spain for representation either. That party is bound to the labor unions and the old way of doing things for the benefit of their members.
After not so very long, the 15M encampment in Puerta del Sol was evicted by police. The activists were not surprised by this. But before it happened, they had already conceived a plan. The 15M movement would move into the barrios, the neighbourhoods, and form local assemblies meeting every week to discuss local problems. They did this, and joined up withcommunity groups which had been relatively inactive, but were rejuvenated by the influx of new members.
In Madrid, the rightwing city government started to harass the weekly meetings in public squares, writing tickets for unlawful assembly and the like. So the 15M activists joined with squatters to open and manage new social centers where they could meet and not be harassed by police. In my neighbourhood in Madrid, some in the assembly squatted a vacant warehouse. They were soon evicted. But like most squatting collectives, this did not discourage them. They moved to another district, to squat a school. Evicted from there they squatted a bank. Now, with the new Podemos-linked city government in power, they have been granted the legal use of another abandoned school.
It is worth noting that the Occupy Wall Street encampment in the U.S. A. didn't do any of this. Instead they fractionated into many little working groups which met privately and designed projects. Many Occupy activists were relieved not to have to deal with a time-consuming general assembly anymore. In consequence, the movement itself simply melted away. Although many individuals did become politicized and undertake various activisms, Occupy Wall Street itself did not become any kind of political force.
Occupy Wall Street broke up, helped along by a coordinated federal government initiative to evict camps in cities around the country simultaneously. The Spanish 15M movement, however, continued coherent. It became an electoral movement, and captured power first on the European Union level, then in the Spanish parliament and in cities around the country. I'll discuss in my talk later today [subsequent blog post] some of how this happened.
The assembly-based municipal movement, rooted in locality, is a powerful revolutionary dream. It has been spelled out in the early 20th century movement of council communism, and in Murray Bookchin's plans for libertarian municipalism. It has been rehearsed for decades in the social center movement where large spaces have been opened, defended, and managed by assemblies of activists.
It was promoted by the “leaderless” Zapatistas, and generalized within the leadership of the Global Justice Movement with its complex horizontal organization for coordinating demonstrations, and its different “blocs” of activists with very different ideas of what to do in a demonstration.
Finally it was taken up by the 15M, and the “movement of the squares” in many different cities in 2011 – movements that were not really left wing in their composition and intention, but were about daily life, about privation, obscene wealth and government corruption.
Many of the talking points of the Global Justice Movement has been seized upon by Trump to deceive voters – that is the old-time fascist strategy, ethnic nationalist populism with socialist sauce that you can easily scrape off.
The tactic that brought the movement(s) together, that drew the world's attention, is as old as revolution – occupation.
All the reasons for discontent with the way things are going were enumerated by Paul Mason in his viral blog post of early 2011, “Twenty reasons why it's kicking off everywhere” (the basis of a 2012 book of the same name).
These have not changed. So the opportunity remains.
Bill Weinberg, “Zapatistas and the Globalization of Resistance,” Yes magazine, May 2004
Paul Mason, “Twenty reasons why it's kicking off everywhere,” 2011; original blog post at: