Albert: David and Daniel – perhaps we can begin by your telling folks just a little about yourselves, where you live, what you do for income, how you came to your current political and social beliefs?
Daniel: I currently live in a small town on the East coast of Spain and I teach French for a living. Before I ever became politically involved I never was exactly into politics nor was I particularly aware of the world I lived in. I even remember saying once that Aznar — the conservative PM that got Spain involved in Iraq — was not as bad a President.
Then a few years ago, after my brother explained to me his views on a number of matters, I borrowed a couple of books by Noam Chomsky and others and it felt like popping a bubble. I became more curious about politics, economics, and about society in general. It felt that I understood it for the first time. Once I also understood how ,uch could be done, I took the opportunity to be more active on a number of projects, like IOPS and the Platform for Victims of Home Evictions (PAH in Spanish).
David: I went to law school in France and right after my degree I decided I would get a PhD in Law. I had always wanted to teach and this was one of the requirements to do so. Shortly after I realized that none of the stuff I was reading made much sense. There were a lot of smart things written on a great number of subjects, but none seemed to be appealing to me. There were none that helped me understand what seemed to be happening in the world. No matter the author or the discipline, I would not see in books what I had seen in the places I had worked at, in my hometown, on the news, or simply what made sense to me intuitively. I then realized I was in a bad situation, now that I had committed myself to do this work. All I could come up with was that I wanted to write about the role of the government in economic development. I then found a book by Chomsky, I had only heard about him once. It was a transcript from a talk called “the role of the state”, I think. I was not brought in a very intellectual environment so I always felt a bit “allergic” to what I would come to know as ‘educanto’ language. When reading Chomsky, I was very pleased to see that for the first time I could read something and understand it completely. Not just the words and the sentences, but its connection with reality. For the first time I would read a book that would have a high regard for rational thinking, simple language and the need to prove each and every point made. It made me realize certain basic things about governments, about the economy and about history. Later I’d discover that there are other people worthy of reading, and for the same reasons. Soon enough I would read stuff I never thought I’d ever be interested in. I became sort of a nerd, I guess. One thing leading to another I found out I was very interested in economics, history of economics and mainstream history. Reading Chomsky, Zinn and many others like Hahnel and yourself (M. Albert) also made me increasingly allergic to Postmodern tuff — the educanto BS — and made me want to read only in a style that could be easily understood and easily checked. In other words, I probably learned how to think rationally, and it all happened outside of the University, and long story short, I quit.
I now live in Madrid and try to think of the different ways that I can contribute with the things I find worth it like IOPS and other projects. I am a member of a modest Spanish Think Tank called ICEA that writes on self-management and economics. It implies I write blogs, papers, articles and sometimes I do interviews to discuss different topics. Also, since last year, I participate in the very new and exciting IOPS project from Spain and we are working on launching a Spanish chapter in the nearest future.
2. You live in tumultuous times – and in a country that is arguably at the very center of the tumult, along with Greece – at least of all European countries. Can you first describe some of how it got started in Spain. What were the early days of the recent upsurges? What shape did it take. What do you think was in people's heads, moving them out into the street – that was different than was in their heads, so to speak, just weeks and months earlier?
David: It’s hard to say where it began exactly. But we all know that it first came out of the student movement. Youth unemployment was always twice more severe than the country’s average and the student unions had always been very active here in Spain. Around then, 2010-11, and even though it was a socialist government, the financial sector and its neoliberal agenda (and the austerity trap that goes with it) had already managed to influence politics to an extent that most Spaniards felt disenfranchised. Each time the student unions would organize a new rally or a new protest, more people would show up. Soon enough the scope of the protests had extended well beyond the plight of the students and the youth. It got the attention of people with very diverse backgrounds, even politically.
Home evictions, for instance, was taking pandemic proportions right at that time and the legal system, as well as the politicians, showed itself to be made by and for the big corporations and the rich. After the housing bubble had burst in Spain, thousands of people would lose their homes every day. Even worse, despite having lost their job and their savings they were still asked to continue to pay the remainder of the debt. So now the situation is one where the banks are being bailed out with tax payers money while the people are being punished for what is no fault of theirs.
So now you'll understand that when the movement called for a protest on May 15th 2011, hundreds of thousands participated, far exceeding all the most optimistic expectations. The result was a movement that quickly turned the protest into an assembly-based movement, in cooperation with already existing groups from civil society. It soon became a bottom-up national movement with similar assemblies in every major city as well as in smaller ones.
Enthusiasm was palpable and for the first time thousands of people felt that they were not alone. Neighborhood assemblies in Madrid, where I was at the time, could count up to 1000 participants all at once. One after the other people stood up and spoke about their own personal situations and about how it related to the now called 15M movement. As a witness during those days I must say it was rather impressive. It was impossible not to feel that history was being made. One of the things I remember is seeing immigrants speaking to audiences of hundreds. Knowing how they usually refrain from getting any attention and avoid being noticed in any way, it was quite impressive and said a lot about what was happening.
But soon crowds started getting smaller and smaller and participation began to drop. It was clear that whatever spirit was keeping the assemblies alive was no longer there. It was hard to identify the reason for this. The police up to that point had maintained a safe distance with the 15M movement: whatever was happening had to do with the assemblies themselves.
3. As time has passed, how have the feelings and views of the broad populace of participants and bystanders changed, do you think?
Daniel: Now you can see that, at least here in Spain, people have began to think that the current situation makes no sense and that it shouldn’t be accepted. Having an elite using public resources for their own profit is perceived as an outrage. People are no longer naïve anymore because they see the corruption as one of the main problems of Spanish society and they express it.
David: What surprises me after the (very long) 18 months of ruling from the conservative party and all the corruption scandals that have affected the very elite of the party — including the Prime Minister who is said to have received dirty money from business people as part of a shadow payroll that has gone one for more than twenty years — is that most people have not turned more cynical and more destructive. One would expect acts of violence and maybe even riots to break out. But none of that is happening and instead what we see, even if painfully slow for an impatient soul like mine, is people organizing and thinking about long term solutions.
4. What about the activists working hard on events, gathering, campaigns, etc. Can you describe some of the pursuits? What do you think have been the most notable successes that have enlarged participation and raised awareness and commitment for those who are involved?
David: One of the best examples of this is the platform for home eviction victims (PAH in Spanish), that has managed to gather enough signatures to include a bill in the Parliament that will be voted on soon. In spite of all the dirty manoeuvres from both major parties this bill means that it will have to be considered and that millions of spaniards will be keeping a close eye on it. The pressure for the conservatives is such that most likely they will to vote reluctantly on a number of proposals inside the bill. This would fantastic victory for civil society and for activism.
5. On the other side of that dynamic, what do you think have been some of the failures, practices that have limited or even repelled participation and diminished awareness and commitment of those involved?
David: Perhaps the biggest disappointment so far has been the way the assembly movement from 2011 was rendered moot. My impression is that this idea that all decisions had to be taken by consensus made the assemblies unworkable and discourage the base of the movement. Once it was depleted of most of its participants it became a shallow institution controlled by a few. There are notable exceptions of course, like the working group on economics which still operates and organizes talks every Sunday in Madrid and publishes great papers; or the 15M paper that still prints an issue every two weeks or so. The 15M is still very much alive and probably growing. However what is left of the assembly movement is another matter completely.
Daniel: That is right. The assembly movement that consisted of Occupying the main squares like it famously did in Madrid and Barcelona only regained some momentum, months later, when the police finally broke the truce and turned very violent against peaceful citizens. The footages went viral and rushed thousands back on the squares. But the truth of the matter is the assembly movement was slowly losing participation. Why? When you talk to the people about that, the most common answer is about the lack of effectiveness and the long speeches given by some. The 15M even tried to have polls in order to understand the cause of that. They gathered data from around the country and came up to that very simple conclusion: it was not from lack of outrage but lack of effectiveness.
There were, for instance, no rules defining decision making other than consensus, so one way to easily disrupt the assemblies, whatever the intentions were, was to talk for a very long time until enough people would leave. I think it is very important in these cases to define aims but also an effective decision making process.
6. Have you thought at a all about the differences between Spain and Greece, and, for that matter Spain and France, say, or the UK, etc.? How can other countries be awakened further, do you think, and how can Spain and they take greater steps toward a better future?
David: We need education about how our societies work in real life and also about what it is that we want. Education takes a long time and a lot of energy but there is no other alternative other than education I’m afraid. Unless we agree on what “democracy” or “justice” actually mean in real terms — in terms of decision making, in terms of who should do what — in our work place, in our assembly groups, in our organizations, etc. there will never be any strategy that will matter as we will lack the base for implementing it.
Each country, each city and even each neighborhood is different and those differences must be taken into account when we think about our movements. There is no need for solutions offered in the abstract. It is crucial, indeed, that we know what we want in the long run, that we have vision. But once we are clear enough about what we want — though perhaps not in blueprint detail — we must accept today’s reality as part of our shorter term goals. In Spain there is a strong base for certain types of actions; in France the situation is very different. What works in Madrid might not do so in Paris.
The challenge we are facing is global and unless we create strong ties with our friends in Greece, Portugal, Italy, Tunisia, the UK, the US, Canada and others from around the globe, we will always be one step behind those that understood this long before us and work against progressive — let alone revolutionary — steps.