Rosemary Bechler (R.): Hi Emma, we are hoping to talk to you about a combination of themes discussed at the Team Syntegrity last June in Barcelona; on media and communications and on reinventing politics. I think for you, these two go pretty well hand in hand?
Emma Aviles (E): Since June, I have been in contact with Ash and Richard, and also with Cecilia Milesi, your independent evaluator, but not with the others most closely involved in those two discussions. We all have quite crazy agendas, I think, and it was good work just to get us all together there!
R: I don’t know if you remember how I first encountered your work – but it was via a video interview that you did on Radical Municipalism with Sunny Hundal at ‘Fearless Cities’ when you were describing the people-to-people communications that had taken place during the EU crisis over Greece. You talked a lot about ‘We’ in describing that act of solidarity and I wanted to find out more about what exactly that category is for you?
E: I come from the Spanish 15M movement. I am a new generation activist who feels deeply embedded into what Manuel Castells called ‘the networked society’. When I speak about a ‘we’ it is a much wider ‘we’ that I identify with, it is a ‘we’ in society that shares some common practices and exchanges ideas knowledge, and ways of mobilising.
To be more specific this ‘we’ during the crisis would have been the 15M movement in Spain, which I lived through in Barcelona, and more specifically the Citizen Debt Audit Platform (PACD) which was set up as a citizen-led platform that actually extended throughout the whole country from 2012. The communication-solidarity moment you are talking about was a video we made to send a message to the Greek people to show them how well we understood the situation they found themselves in, and that we knew that what was happening was not because they were ‘lazy Greeks’, but rather a scam imposed upon them by political and economic powers. We wanted to deliver a powerful and empowering message via that vehicle called ‘the emotions’ which we sometimes forget is more often the basis for politics than ‘facts’.
Instead of talking about the Greek debt and its creditors and the European Central Bank, we just decided that a people-to-people message could be much more effective to lift up their spirits in those years of struggle. The video was made using our communications knowledge, strategy and dynamics, and it actually went hugely viral in Greece and all over the place, with newspapers calling us up and so forth!
It really worked very well at the international level. We understood only too well that Europe is a terrain on which it is necessary to interact, but at the same time it is not easy to communicate across different languages and cultures. Emotional empowerment, we were right to think, is one of the better ways of doing this.
But with regard to our home turf and the Spanish state, the whole of 15M was a big communications success, which of course in turn didn’t come out of the blue, but was rooted in past struggles. It was a very unique techno-political experience that has definitely changed how Spanish politics work – and its actors – and how people here understand the possibilities of a renewed democratic intervention.
R: Was the rather sophisticated communication strategy around the independence referendum in Catalonia part of this newfound democratic literacy?
E: Yes. Definitely all these experiences are cumulative. Though what was different about the Catalan referendum process was that it also included strongly rural areas, and here we have a particular mixture of experiences that come from a long Catalan history of struggle and grass roots organising, and the tools used by 15M which you could see appearing in similar patterns of coordination and communication. The Catalan grassroots movements (CDRs) are just another example, if you like, of a distributed movement, which people who belong to an empowered and networked society have the ability to organise.
I don’t know how much detail got through on this internationally, but we had many different political actors mobilising their people in different ways. We had the big civil society groupings like Òmnium Cultural and La Asamblea Nacional Catalana (ANC) which organised their people as well. But then you also had the CDR’s – the committees in defence of the republic – which were self-organising groups of people in different locations who weren’t at all ‘commandeered’ by the political parties or the civil society groups. This was a big success, and the CDR’s in particular pushed the others on to do more than they otherwise would have done. Some people believe that Puigdemont left for Brussels because he realised that people were going to do whatever it took to defend their institutions and that this was completely out of their control. No-one could actually say don’t do this or that, because it was self-organised with people deciding themselves what they wanted to do. When the Catalan leadership realised this – they feared violence, and not wanting blood on their hands, they exited the stage.
This distributed organising we describe as ‘a beehive’ movement, when emerging systems and collective intelligence decide what happens without an actual top down or centralised coordination node. The Queen Bee doesn’t decide what happens: it is the bees who decide how many eggs she lays…
R: Your emphasis on emotional literacy is very intriguing, since I know that you know a great deal about the facts around both debt, for example, and technopolitics.
E: There are lots of organisations of course around the world working on debt. In Europe, the emphasis was traditionally on the Global South. But since the economic crisis, there has been a shift to studying debt in the Global North – and especially the European periphery – and how we are living through phases similar in many ways to what Latin America suffered in the 1980’s. The International Citizens Audit Network (ICAN) wanted to bring all these groups across Europe and campaign together. But the situations in each country are very specific and different, and after some years, and the pretence of ‘back to normality’, this collaboration has dropped in intensity.
I used to be more of an environmental activist until I participated in the 15M movement, where I ended up learning all about the internet. 15M was a space where we learned a lot about everything. And that is also when I became very interested in debt. Our citizen movement against this scam they called a ‘crisis’ thought we must do something to intervene in the debtocracy mechanism, at a time when the big Bankia private bank (which used to be a public bank) collapsed due to the criminal interventions of our politicians, while we received in exchange a European bail-out accompanied by austerity measures, losing our universal healthcare, cuts in education and so on. This generation of activists believes that the mastering of tools and practices, and ‘getting things done’ is fundamental, to push us further forward than what is achieved just by resistance or with advocacy.
So the result of that thinking was the launch of an initiative around a citizens’ debt audit. We had to demand a transparency of public data so that we could figure out for ourselves what they had done with our money, and collectively decide what part of the debt, while being legal, was nevertheless illegitimate. How we define ‘illegitimate debt’ is at the end of the day to be decided by us, the people, in a sovereign act of deliberation and consultation, as it is our money!
Some of our people from this big, ongoing, collective process of the ‘citizens’ debt audit’ platform have gone into the key institutions and municipalities. One colleague is Deputy in the Spanish Parliament. In Madrid, the number two, Carlos Sanchez Mato, is a member of the platform and they are already starting up citizens’ audits in the various districts of Madrid: they are also auditing big private-public partnership construction initiatives like the ringroad around Madrid. Here in Barcelona there are lots of people in the city council from the platform as well, and they are going to publish all the economic data even though the city council of Barcelona is not indebted in the same way. Making this information transparent to the people is a very important step.
All this was done in parallel with a strong communications strategy. We believe that is at the core for building many of these citizen tools, like @15MpaRato which I’m sure you and Alex know about, led by Xnet.
These are all examples of how it is in our hands to make change happen, and that there are so many things we can do which can so empower people. The narratives that we build around these mechanisms of participation are vitally important because we are saying, “ It is we who have the solutions in our hands.”
As for techno-politics, my path was via Xnet’s project 15MpaRato. I got involved from the moment it launched and that was when I really got to know how it all worked in a much more detailed, in-depth way. For many years now I have been participating in Xnet, who are hard to beat in Spain and probably across Europe for their understanding of techno-politics, and how to communicate to build citizen power and collective action.
R: So given your experience in this field, and all your points of comparison, what was your personal experience of the Team Syntegrity three-and-a-half-day event in Barcelona?
E: It was quite unique. Yes, we are used to events with facilitation, although the participative methodology we use in Spain is closer to those evolved in Latin America and those work well for us.
R. Cecilia Milesi, our independent evaluator, also recommended the Latin American approach, saying that she felt the need for a more focused, shared context, situating a specific change process within a sharply-defined socio-political or organisational ecosystem. Team Syntegrity, by contrast begins with a ludicrously open, blue skies question, and a deliberate range of people …
E. The part where we decided what themes we would spend our time on was interesting. They were of course gathered from our own concerns, but I felt more guidance could have been helpful in ensuring that we chose subjects more relevant for more of the people there. It was an interesting decision-making process though, how we arrived at those 12 themes.
At the time, the algorithm used to allocate which themes people were responsible for as discussants or critics seemed to me totally arbitrary, although of course it was working with our top preferences. And that was a real novelty. You really are leaving people to use their collective intelligence and figure things out for themselves. But some of the discussion-tables had such different points of view that they had to try and reconcile – I suppose the ‘internet discussion’ was one of those! Maybe a preparatory exchange could have paved the way for a more efficient encounter between those people.
Having said that, for me one of the most interesting aspects of the Team Syntegrity dynamic was the way that ideas were transferred from person to person and group to group. We got to hear about things and participate in discussions that are not the usual focus in our lives, and that is a very enriching experience, not least because it helps you shape ideas about your own line of work in a different way.
In many cases I believe this opened us up to creativity. When I saw how feminist issues travelled from one table to another and ended up creating this amazing experience in the ‘parenting the planet’ all-male discussion group, that seemed hugely valuable.
Nuit Debout movement in France, one of the reasons why it collapsed was because the traditional ‘expert’ activists just didn’t have the patience to slow down and walk at the same pace as the less experienced participants. I have been in many situations where I know much more about one thing, but much less than them about many other scenarios.The 15M itself was an amazing experience in just this way – bringing many non-experts together, and many non-politicised people out of the blue, who then learned so much from others much more knowledgeable. If we don’t allow this kind of listening to happen, things are not going to move forward. When I participated in the
R: It is asking a lot I know. But for the experts too, it is important, isn’t it, to learn how to convey your message effectively to people who think very differently from you… and to have some curiosity about the result.
E: We all have to find a balance between giving and taking! But there are situations where you just have to get up and leave if you feel you can’t afford the time, and one of the tensions that I saw in the internet group was a familiar clash of cultures that has become too time-consuming, between the new internet activists as I have been describing them, and traditional activists who are moving into the digital world, but without fully understanding it.
By contrast, our discussion on media and communications was efficient and very comfortable and there was a real flow to the discussion between the other colleagues and myself. The work Birgitta has done of course, has been very much connected to the sort of work we have done in Xnet and the X-Party. I didn’t know her personally, but we have been following her work and I know she knows other people in my team. So that was an easy one because we knew we were on the same wavelength. With Agnieszka, who is more of a journalist, it was really interesting to hear her points of view and discover the many synergies between us despite our different backgrounds. But we were ready to listen to each other and suck up each others’ proposals, so it was quite a collaborative table, rather than a confrontational one.
One of the reasons it was so easy for us for example to put together our slideshow of best practise in media and communications at the Team Syntegrity, was because this was part of the existing knowledge arising from practises that everyone in our networked society generation is familiar with. For us it is something similar to the revolutionary technology of the era of the printing press.
And I do feel that there is now a big divide between new wave digital activists and the older generation of the more traditional left in this regard. They see the internet as something to be used in a very basic way. My experience in France in the Nuit Debout movement was that the traditional left regarded the internet as menacing or at best something of a liability. The new generation shares so many practises because we have been developing our struggles and communicate on this terrain and even if we don’t know each other when we come together to try and do something, it doesn’t take long for results to pop up!
R: Is this because the traditional left assumes that the main direction of communication is going to remain, for example, one-to-many?
E: Yes, the unidirectional way of communicating is part of this. But it is also the use of language and the fear of sharing our emotions because we might be mistaken for populists! – you know? So it goes much further than this. The preoccupation with unity of message and ‘staying on brand’ is also an issue. We have seen this with a lot of NGO’s. There is a study that has been recently published that has looked at movements and social organisations in the United States, and it seemed to me that they put their finger on the problem. Here it is, ‘Networked change: how progressive campaigns are won in the 21st century.’
But I’ll give you an example. #15MpaRato was a project launched by Xnet. But Xnet didn’t have their brand on it, because they wanted this device to be anonymous so that the people could appropriate it much more easily. If you want to mobilise, to make the best of the collective intelligence you can bring together, and encourage self-organising in a facilitated down-up environment, having your brand on it will probably be a barrier to success.
Yet this is what we see both in political parties and traditional NGO’s: both cling to their branding. That makes it much more difficult to have a broader and more varied user-base than your immediate circle of supporters. You will always be setting up systems that say, ”this is me: that is you”. But if you create an environment that is not branded, it is much easier to unleash the dynamics where people actually step up to the plate, and make use of what is on offer for themselves, that is – appropriate it in some way.
R: You mentioned meeting up with Richard Bartlett, one of the key participants in that ‘Parenting the planet’ group – how did that happen?
E: We were invited to a meeting in Canada of about eighty activists from around North America, including coloured people, white people and natives. An Irish colleague working in techno-politics was organising an event, the ‘Web of Change’ and called me up to ask if I could recommend a list of international participants. I thought it would be interesting for him to invite Richard. It was, of course, fantastic to catch up with him again. And at that event, we did have the feeling that we continued working on the feminist/anti-patriarchal challenges we had begun to explore at the Team Syntegrity last June. What was generated around that discussion-table is part of a wider process that I know from Spanish social movements, but that Richard is also involved in, and one that made us accomplices in the Canadian event, where we managed to inject it once again into the proceedings! So this was a transformative experience.
Ash Ghadiali, meanwhile, has been interested in the new communications strategies arising out of the 15M movement. I had told him about how important psychologists, sociologists, communicators and other experts were in helping us build our strategies, and he wanted to understand how this was orchestrated in more detail. Unfortunately, then the Catalan situation blew up, and I was sucked into that furore, so I couldn’t continue that exchange as I would have liked.
It has been an absolute tsunami here!
R: Well let’s talk about how communications for change work under such tsunami conditions. You spoke a lot in the Team Syntegrity about being able to talk to people from your heart and your guts, if you want to involve and engage them. This seems so different from the way that psychometric messaging, algorithms and filter bubbles work – all those tools that billionaires deploy who want to manipulate us via social media. So what is the alternative direction we need to go in?
E: It is really amazing, for those of us who were active in 15M, just to observe how the mega-rich and powerful are deploying the same practises and tools – the bubbles and the messaging – that we have been evolving since 2011. But of course the message they want to convey is completely different. Moreover they have been buying with a lot of money clickfarms and bots to do this work for them, whereas our bots are real people, and lots of them!
It’s really interesting though, because there are some strong parallels in the way they are working. In particular, they also are communicating from their guts! That is why it works so well for them! Why then, aren’t the left using the same successful techniques? Take memes: we use these as the doors or windows with which to enter people’s consciousness, in order then to be able to develop a more complex and differentiated message. But we need those entry points, to touch down on people’s culture and their emotions. So we must ask ourselves, how can we use our language and build our messages in order to reach people, as well as of course mastering the tools and practises, and at the same time acquire the numbers of people it will take to viralise, or to break down algorithms.
Of course the digital world is just another layer of reality. The physical world also exists and what those who really want to bring about transformative change can add to the memes and the messaging, which are the sparks that light the touch paper, is all the different ways in which collective intelligence can apply itself to doing things together: everything from meeting up for a collective social catharsis which celebrates not being alone, to formulating proposals for action. These things must work hand in hand.
For example, in France some fellow activists called us up and invited us to come and help them build a communication device, for many of us could sense that something was about to happen. So we arrived in Paris three weeks before March 31, to help them prepare. The original call came from the coalition ‘Convergence des Luttes’ – the coming together of struggles! And the slogan to accompany this was, “We will frighten the powers that be!”, supposedly with this “convergence”… We had to say that this wouldn’t work. It wouldn’t appeal to citizens who weren’t already politically involved, and it was a priority to build a stronger movement around the small number of people involved at that stage.
So we built the communication around one of their slogans: ’Nuit Debout’ – “night standing” – which had no recognisable political connotation at all, and its narrative was built from hope, from the emotions, not from confrontation, telling people simply to come out on the streets, so that they could find themselves and realise that they were not alone. And that worked. Because the analysis was spot on. Here we had a society which was going through the shock-doctrine having lived through the state of emergency, all the state repression and arrests during Cop21, and everything else they had been through. People were feeling isolated and not at all connected with each other. So the objective, through our strategy, was to bring them physically together in a space where they could start seeing each other, talking with each other and learning from each other and start building together from there.
R: I take your point. And how important was it to the effectiveness of what was achieved, that it was rather different kinds of people who were brought together…?
E: The big problem was that once all those people had answered that call and were ‘there’, the traditional activists who had initiated the action started to get very impatient with what they referred to as “these politically immature people”! They were finding the assemblies that gathered for discussion boring, and they started wanting to take control over them. There were people out there on the square from many different worlds. But the sad thing was that when the collision came, it was between all those worlds and the traditional left ‘leaders’.
R: Having come out under their own steam and for their own reasons, they didn’t like being pushed around. That’s important isn’t it?
E: Yes, that was it. And it was a very sad moment, because if an exchange of knowledge had been allowed to take its course in all that diversity, maybe something quite different would have emerged. I had learned that lesson not so long ago here in Plaça Catalunya in Barcelona!
R: You mean in 15M – tell me more.
E: One of the things that happened was that it took just two people, people who are known to the existing anarchist liberatarian movements, to convince the others that they should be there in the square with all the new people who were suddenly involved. The first knee-jerk reaction of the seasoned activists in Barcelona was, “Don’t go there. Let’s not get involved. We don’t know who these people are. There could be all sorts of infiltrations, given how immature these people are…” and so on. But these two held their ground and said, “ No, our historical role is to be there with the people and share ideas with them!” And many did it in a way which was not top-down and not manipulative, so it really produced results.
A similar process which really worked well for the whole country, was that there was this network of facilitators who were already online sharing their practises and work issues. When the squares filled up, one of the girls who belonged sent an e-mail to the entire network all over the country, saying, “ It’s our duty to be out there helping in the facilitation of the people in the squares.” So we had hundreds of people disembarking into these squares packed with people from all over, trying to deal with assemblies of thousands of people, and actually achieving this! So you see what can happen if you have close coordination between these two layers, the digital and the physical space. We were able to connect up what was going on in the different squares, and that was how we were able to arrive at the experience of being the 15M.
R: Now we have yet another stand-off between the Catalan independentists and the Spanish state, with seemingly no opportunity to talk across the divides, and no help at all from the supra-national level of the European Union – do you think citizens can use any of these communication processes to break down this polarisation?
E: First of all, it is very important to say that there are many many different layers of independentism in Catalonia. There is the conservative élite. There are the organised associations of civil society – ANC and Òmnium Cultural – which will have nothing to do with anyone linked to the CUP, for example. Beyond this there is a complex constellation of political actors who sometimes combine and sometimes confront each other. La CUP [the Popular Unity Candidacy (Catalan: Candidatura d’Unitat Popular, CUP), for example, is confronted by many political parties who also stand for independence.
Then you find many who feel in the middle between people who don’t want independence and those who do. These people want neither black nor white, neither yes nor no. The palette of colours here is wide and completely invisibilised!
For example, the independentists I am closest to are not committed to independence as a neat solution to all our problems, per se. No, but they see it as an important point of rupture with the political status quo. The truth is that the old Spain who won the civil war is still there in this Spanish Government. And we, the ones who lost, are still under their rule 40 years later. So how will we break free from this? It is probably not through the kind of negotiations that happened throughout the transition period. This just extended the problem for all those decades. But, for them, this is where rupture comes in: this could be one of the things that jolts us into revising our entire political system and democratic processes, enabling people to rewrite our constitution, and to rethink and rebuild whatever it is we want to design together. We would have a chance to decide what that should be.
Meanwhile, the political experience of the invisibilised middle ground is completely unfair. For them, there is no political representation and no media coverage. It is true that Catalunya en Comu does try to represent this middle position, but the path of ‘equidistance’ doesn’t offer a political rupture point either. So a lot of people in the middle ground find themselves moving towards the independence position, since they too are searching for a way of exposing the nature of the Spanish state as they have experienced it to wider public scrutiny, and they are also seeking change.
October 1 was amazing. I participated in a project instigated by various movements in the city, under the heading of AgencyUO. One hundred communications activists who work in various collectives came together to create a media centre that could cover the events of October 1 by our own means and using our own narratives.
I was doing the morning shift and my job was to monitor what was happening on twitter, to pick out important developments to focus on and send our people there, because we were broadcasting on various channels: we had radio, tv, a web, social networks, streamers and Telegram groups.
October 1 was organised in such a way that older people and young people were encouraged to go and vote in the morning, because if violence occurred, it was expected later on in the day. But the police decided to crack down at 10.30 in the morning, when the old people were voting, and when we saw this, this actually launched many of the people who were caught in the middle out to vote ‘yes’ in the afternoon.
So here we have it: this complex situation in which as citizens we find ourselves in the middle of battles between polarised political interests. I did vote ‘yes’ but I am not an independentist. At the same time I have no trouble interacting with them. We have different ideas, but I have no problem with that. We belong to the same community. At the same time of course you have the nationalists and fascists who want independence, and we keep our distance from them, for sure. But the majority of the people who are in the middle and are voting ‘yes’ went into those schools to vote, voting different ways and thinking different things, but happy to be in this together and to be making this possible.
Because, October 1 was only made possible by the people. There was a very precise moment when the government lost control over what was happening once the violence started, and it was the people who throughout that whole day, held the electoral process and the gathering of votes together. After finishing my shift in the media centre, I went to vote in a working class area nearby, and when I walked into the school what did I see? Older people, young people, people looking after the ballot boxes but also playing dominoes, providing food or childcare and play activities for the kids, a policeman who had been given flowers – it was civil society that was holding the ring. We saw what people were able to do together on that day. That is one of the most important factors, helping people to believe there is as a way forward.
Then at night, I went back to my village about 40 kilometres outside Barcelona, when the counting of the votes was happening at the end of the day. I found farmers with their trucks and other vehicles out blocking the roads, because the police were expected to arrive and take the ballot boxes away from us. The people were guarding the city council where the counting was going on. This was a transformative experience for many millions of people in Catalonia, 2.2 million of whom voted on that day.
Now people are feeling a little blue about things, because with Article 155 imposing direct rule on Catalonia, it seems as if the Spanish Government has ‘won’ yet again. But we are in a standby situation in these days running up to the elections of December 21, and we will see what the outcome is. The citizens’ assemblies are still going on, and people keep organising. We have no idea. But people do know that they can believe in each other, and that they have each other, and they have seen the power of what we can do together, and the synapses between the different groups and movements allow us to quickly intercommunicate and organise. So, who knows…?
R: This must also impact on your sense of priorities as a media activist?
E: It’s interesting. We have been helping activist groups in the city and around Spain to improve their knowhow, especially in creating a decent security environment for them to work in, because we know that there has been surveillance and also interference at different levels. We expect, following the December 21 elections, that there will be a legal crackdown on people who were active on October 1. They are using legality as their execution block.
I know Barcelona en Comu are preparing tools for ‘citizen participation’, and that they are working on different ways of opening up governance for the people, so that people can be the ones who put forward their proposals and demand new laws. Of course, this is what we wanted them to go into parliamentary politics for – to open the institutions up to the people, so that their processes became transparent and the politicians themselves were seen not as rulers, but as public workers. But I understand the constraints and contradictions. Walking into that machinery of power must be difficult, and making real deep change quite a considerable challenge.
Many of my activist colleagues are feeling quite let down by all the things that haven’t been happening, and we aren’t very happy with the latest coalition with the left and the greens here in Catalonia, because they act as a big power bloc internally and coopt “Los Comunes” in an ‘old politics’ sort of way. There is a lot of internal tension. They know how to play the political game, top down, using the old techniques, so the new proposals for ‘Catalonia en Comu’ evoke a certain weariness.
As an activist with experience in working in different countries, I think it is very important to have this wider debate and information around municipalism and its networks in different countries across Europe and beyond. But one thing that is missing from this debate so far, is an understanding of why radical municipalism and people power has caught on here in Spain in a way which has been so powerful. For me, what we need to understand is the movement-building and what active citizens were able to create – in short, what came before. It was the creation of a mass of politicised citizens that was the essential phase, previous to launching a set of municipal initiatives. And this should be one of the first aspects of this new politics that we should discuss in depth. And then build.