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You are here: Platypus /The fickle power of the people

The fickle power of the people

Eduardo Frajman

Platypus Review #79 | September 2015

¡No somos marionetas! Ya!,” they screamed. We are not puppets! Enough! Their name commanded attention too: the indignados, the indignant. It said, “We are not victims. We are not acting out like impotent children. We see you and we know what you are doing. We have power, moral power, but also the power of hands and feet and screaming voices.”

Also known as “15-M movement”, they trace their birth to May 15, 2011. On that day, social organizations staged demonstrations across Spain to voice their popular repudiation of their political leaders’ ineptness and corruption, under the shadow of economic catastrophe. As the story goes, a group of forty indignados made camp on the Puerta del Sol plaza. From that seed emerged the movement, organically sprouting new branches, new encampments, assemblies, collectives. They talked of a new kind of society, of horizontality, of an end to the game in which one has to pick the least repulsive megalomaniac to make decisions for everyone. They talked of justice and solidarity.1 Yet they were not just a few hippies and unemployed lifelong radicals. They were the masses. Everyone was talking about them even before the Spanish media revealed the numbers: between six and eight and a half million people, according to a survey published in June of that year,2 dipped their toes in the waters of the new. Millions! One in eight Spaniards, possibly one in six!

indignados2

Still from video taken at Plaça de Catalunya (Catalonia Square) with Indignados, June 2011. It shows a discussion circle among activists.
(Licensed under creative commons, produced by www.thetailorpress.com, available online at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E9x2j6DGEV0)

As always happens when a popular explosion of this magnitude occurs, intellectuals and activists of the Left around the world were quick to appropriate the indignados. Rather than allow the Spanish popular upsurge to be what it was: a powerful, spontaneous, marvelous, but also by necessity short-lived, reaction to the depravity of the market and the callousness of those in power; 15-M was symbolically enlisted by the Left to do a job, whether the participants were interested in this or not (though many doubtless were): to be the avant garde of the global revolution, the great offensive against representative democracy and predatory capitalism.3 The stirrings of the people never fail to arouse the desperate, confused and splintered international Left.

In certain circles there appears a need to engage in endless debates about “what the Left is,” but I do not think it is very difficult to demarcate the Left, at least in terms of its ultimate political objectives. I mean the “real” Left, what the rest of the world calls the “radical” Left, or, more evocatively, the “far” Left. A Left that envisions “a transition toward democratic social coordination of the economy and the construction of a development model in which human needs are prioritized over the needs of capital.”4 By “democratic” is meant “participatory, deliberative, discursive, negotiated, cooperative, and consensual” democracy of some kind.5 There are other goals certainly, those of the multicultural left, and the indigenous left, and the feminist left, and the post-colonial left, and so on, but, they all overlap in their desire to achieve this central political objective and in their belief that such a state of affairs can somehow be made real.

In any event, it took little time for left-wing humanists, post-modernists, and critical theorists to make the indignados one with similar, or not so similar, eruptions of unrest around the world. Here is a typical example:

In the last few years we have witnessed a wave of mass protests against authoritarianism, corporate monopoly, privatizations, and the decline of social protections. The uprisings against neoliberal policies and corrupt, authoritarian and repressive governments in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and Syria, coined the “Arab Spring,” have inspired other similar forms of activism such as: the occupation of the Wisconsin statehouse by the organized labor movement and their supporters; teachers’ strikes in Chicago; rallies against economic austerity measures in Madrid and other Spanish cities organized by the indignados; protests against economic injustice in Athens and Tel Aviv; the yoSoy132 movement in Mexico; the mass mobilizations in New York against global economic injustice known as Occupy Wall Street; followed shortly by a plethora of other Occupy movements in North America, Europe and elsewhere; and, a wave of student protests in Quebec, Canada. […] Using the metaphor of “1% versus 99%,” these various movements have questioned the global economic order that has resulted in wide disparities in economic wealth and political power. Employing the model of consensus decision-making, these movements have attempted to establish alternative models of grassroots democracy that Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri have described as the “multitude form.”6

At last! The Multitude has come! The people have awoken! The multitude will win the world not through revolution, for violence is the tool of the oppressors, but through the recontextualization of conscience, the obliteration of hegemony.7 Could it be? Could change, real change, radical change, be truly on the horizon? Many were the prophets of the coming revolution.8 “By the late summer” of 2011, says Stephen D’Arcy, “it was already possible to see the outline of a transnational movement of people’s assemblies.”9 “Today’s protests and revolts,” affirms the ubiquitous Slavoj Žižek, “question the global capitalist system as such and try to keep alive the idea of a society beyond capitalism.”10 Even the venerable Time Magazine, nobody’s revolutionary rag, jumped on the bandwagon, proclaiming “the protester” as its Person of the Year and declaring the start of a “global wave of dissent.”11

But was it true? Were all these movements one movement? Were they all questioning capitalism? Were all the angry demonstrators in Tahrir square thinking in terms of “1% versus 99%”? Did eight million Spaniards truly yearn for a world in which all decisions are made through localized people’s assemblies? Žižek, for one, was prescient enough to hedge his bets:

It is also important to recognize that the protesters aren’t pursuing any identifiable ‘real’ goal. The protests are not ‘really’ against global capitalism, ‘really’ against religious fundamentalism, ‘really’ for civil freedoms and democracy, or ‘really’ about any one thing in particular. What the majority of those who have participated in the protests are aware of is a fluid feeling of unease and discontent that sustains and unites various specific demands. The struggle to understand the protests is not just an epistemological one, with journalists and theorists trying to explain their true content; it is also an ontological struggle over the thing itself, which is taking place within the protests themselves.12

There was, as it turned out, not much time to ontologize the protests. The popular fervor surged, then just as quickly receded. Alexandros Kioupkiolis and Giorgos Katsambekis hurried to put out an edited volume that explored whether the new wave of global unrest was best understood as the rise of Hardt and Negri’s Multitude, or perhaps as the consolidation of the “counter-hegemony of the people” theorized by Ernesto Laclau.13 By the time the book was finished they were already lamenting “the apparent eclipse of the square movements” and expectantly transferring their hopes to new waves of protest in Turkey and Brazil.14

indignados4

Still from video taken at Placa de Catalunya with Indignados, June 2011.
It shows a banner reading 'People of Europe'.
(Licensed under creative commons, produced by www.thetailorpress.com, available online at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E9x2j6DGEV0)

15-M still exists, as do Occupy and many of the movements that spearheaded, or emerged out of, these popular upsurges. The dream of a better world that brought them into being is still being pursued by many activists. They work for global change and they work to change their own lives, “to live out and build real democracy.”15 The masses? The millions? Most of them returned home. Some wanted to stay but could not. Others never knew why they came in the first place. The movement persists, but the upsurge has abated and with it the purity of the original dream. These days, many of the remaining indignados try to maintain their presence through, a political party, ironically, named Podemos (We Can). Whether Podemos will become an established force, fighting for social change within the existing political institutions, remains to be seen. The most recent elections in Spain offer encouraging signs. This is all to the good. Left-wing parties that emerged out of mass popular movements, such as the Workers’ Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores) in Brazil, have able to win increasing support until reaching political supremacy in their countries. Inevitably, as will happen with Podemos, the more influential the new party becomes, the more its behavior becomes like that of the old guard the people’s movement sought to repudiate. As this happens, the original dream of a new kind of politics dissipates into memory.

The outcome in Spain was eminently predictable. Inevitable, in fact. The Left is complicit in this inevitability while it continues to place all its hopes for fundamental change on spontaneous popular protests. Popular upsurges are enormously important, of course. They seem, in fact, to be an integral aspect of contemporary politics. Consider the “People Power Revolution” in the Philippines in 1986, the pro-democracy campaigns in Latin America and Eastern Europe in the late 1980s, the caracazo of 1989 in Venezuela, the anti-corruption protests in Brazil in 1994, the cacerolazos in Argentina in 2001, the Water Wars, the Gas Wars, the Velvet Revolution, the Cedar Revolution, the Orange Revolution, the Saffron Revolution. For those who yearn for the people to rise and realize its power these were surprising events, full of meaning and potential. They each created its own sect of prophets for the coming of the new age. Look at what we have accomplished, they said to themselves. What can we not accomplish?

It seems as if the Left suffers from deliberate amnesia. “We’ve never seen anything like it,” says Charles Reeve of the indignados.16 But we have. Many times. The closest analogue, to my mind, is the national upsurge in Argentina during that country’s economic crisis in 2001 and 2002. Over several years, more and more social organizations had joined the popular rejection of neoliberalism, most notably the piqueteros, the unemployed who forced themselves on the world consciousness by blocking roads and refusing to budge. Then, on December 19, 2001, they were joined by the multitude, the poor and the middle classes, who banged their pots and pans and screamed “que se vayan todos!,” they should all leave. They formed neighborhood assemblies and spoke to their neighbors and to strangers, and dreamed of social justice and a better world. Close behind came the prophets of the Left, who pointed to the Argentine rebellion as the locus for a new global revolution.17 Antonio Negri and his collaborators were particularly enamored of the Argentine movement.18 As with the indignados and Occupy, there was much theorizing of the significance of the new ways of doing politics, of horizontality and participatory democracy and true freedom.19 The rhetoric of Podemos is infused with such ideas.

However, by December 2003, on the second anniversary of the upsurge, three separate marches took place around Buenos Aires, as the leaders of the different groups involved were no longer on speaking terms. The movement was now many movements. The dream of real change was, for all purposes, dead. The energy it engendered was captured and channeled by the true victors of those events, Presidents Néstor Kirchner and his wife and successor Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.

The story was similar elsewhere in Latin America in the 2000s, in Ecuador and Bolivia, Chile and Brazil, and yes, even in Venezuela. The radical left gained short-lived visibility though its protagonism in popular upsurges. According to James Petras and Henry Veltmeyer, it “blocked capital” yet was “unable or unwilling to replace it.”20  Some social organizations were co-opted by new center-left governments, others ended up in permanent confrontation with them. On other occasions they actually contributed to the rise of pro-market regimes, that at best paid lip service to the fanciful dreams of social activists.21

And so it will be with Podemos, if it succeeds in retaining its relevance. It will produce its share of leaders, who will attempt to coopt the energy that led to the already legendary surge of the indignados. At best, this will bring economic stability and security, more inclusive politics, and a renewed sense of social responsibility to the Spanish government. It will not bring about participatory democracy or restructure the economy based on human need. It will not bring about the revolution.

An upsurge is not a movement. And without a movement there can be no revolution. Upsurges birth movements, but they are not movements. Movements can effect real change, upsurges cannot. In fact, if you want to get into Žižekian ontology, the two are somewhat incompatible. Upon the demise of the most recent popular explosions, Alain Badiou laments that they were “blind, naïve, scattered,” lacking “durable organization.” (( Kioupkiolis and Katsambekis, (2014): 3. )) But this is exactly what made them so attractive, so exciting and seemingly new (as we have seen, they are not new). The people awoke, they roared, they danced, and then they went back to real life. This, history teaches, is the only thing that can happen in any society with the most minimal recognition of individual freedom: the hundreds of thousands, the millions, the multitudes, cannot be herded indefinitely. Most people, the prophets of the Left incongruously forget, cannot afford to spend all their time and effort on creating counter-hegemony. They have to eat.22

The prophets of the Left continue to believe they can theorize popular mobilization without bothering to learn how it actually operates in the real world. The most cursory look at forty years of social-science research on social movements shows the absurdity of ascribing revolutionary potential to a spontaneous and momentary social phenomenon. Spontaneity wanes as time passes and “the Multitude” sprouts leaders and would-be leaders.23 Mobilization is contingent on resources and opportunities.24 It is hard to forge alliances across different groups and even more difficult to maintain them.25 Protest is simply not sustainable indefinitely, it comes and goes like waves, and participants are invariably beset by boredom, frustration, and exhaustion.26 The energy that brought the multitude to the streets is sometimes captured by social movements, sometimes by political parties. These patterns of (mostly peaceful) protest seem to be inextricably tied to social life under democratic capitalism. Recent history shows that short-lived, mass social protest does not lead to systemic change. The Chinese government, for one, counted on this when popular protests broke out in Hong Kong in 2014. There was not repression, no tear-gassing of protesters. The authorities sat and waited. The protesters, who found that they were uselessly pounding on an impassable door, could do nothing but go home. And what of the Arab Spring, where protesters were beaten and gassed and much worse? Tunisia is now the “success story,” for beginning to build the kind of liberal democracy that Occupy wants to destroy.

An intellectually responsible Left will absorb the insights of the social movement literature and learn from it. If there is a way to create Hardt and Negri’s multitude or Laclau and Mouffe’s counter-hegemonic subject, it must be illuminated by the sound empirically-based analysis. Ontologizing social movements without Piven and Cloward, Tilly and Tarrow, is akin to interpreting the Bible while ignoring Wellhausen and Graf. The multitude, as it turns out, does not seem to care much for global revolution in our liberal democratic age. The Latin American waves of protest of the last decade, if anything, showed the people making demands of the state, not calling for participatory democracy or the dissolution of representative politics.27 More recent waves of protest in that region, moreover, have revealed also how the multitude can turn around, how the people who banged their cooking utensils demanding an end to austerity can just as easily defend the interests of the market, of capital, or worse. In 2006, and again in 2008, many of the same Argentines who had inspired the Left in their rejection of neoliberalism just a few years earlier took to the streets again, only this time the left-wing Kirchners were their target and the largest agro-industrial companies the people’s champions. In Venezuela there seems to be not one, but two multitudes at any given time. Is it truly up to the prophets of the Left to determine the sincerity of either? In Brazil, the people who brought the Workers’ Party to power, now march in massive anti-corruption demonstrations against its leaders, some of which openly invite the military to take power once again. The Left forgets the double-edged potential of the multitude at its peril. It dreams of the day when Carl Sandburg’s prophecy will come true:

When I, the People, learn to remember, when I, the People, use the lessons of yesterday and no longer forget who robbed me last year, who played me for a fool—then there will be no speaker in all the world say the name: “The People,” with any fleck of a sneer in his voice or any far-off smile of derision.
The mob—the crowd—the mass—will arrive then.

But such a thing will not just happen spontaneously. We learn this from history, and we learn it from systematic study. We should still aim to bring justice to the world, but it is unproductive to shut our eyes to reality. Wishful thinking has never been a solid basis for ontology. |P


  1.  Diego Beas, “How Spain’s 15-M Movement is Redefining Politics,” The Guardian, (October 15, 2011) – online at http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2011/oct/15/spain-15-m-movement-activism.  

  2.  “Más de seis millones de españoles han participado en el Movimiento 15M,” RTVE, June 8, 2011 – online at http://www.rtve.es/noticias/20110806/mas-seismillones-espanoles-han-participado-movimiento-15m/452598.shtml.  

  3.  For example, among many, Ernesto Castañeda, “The Indignados and the Global Diffusion of Forms of Protest against Authoritarianism and Structural Adjustment Programs” in Waves of Social Movement Mobilizations in the Twenty-First Century, ed., Nahide Konak and Rasim Özgür Dömnez, (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2015):11-28; and Pablo Ouziel, “Spain’s ‘Indignados’: Vanguard of a Global Nonviolent Revolt against Neoliberalism”, Globalresearch.org, 2011 – online at http://www.pabloouziel.com/Opinion%20Pieces/Spain%E2%80%99s%20%E2%80%98Indignados%E2%80%99%20at%20the%20Vanguard%20of%20a%20Global%20Nonviolent%20Revolt%20.pdf  

  4.  Jeffrey R. Webber and Barry Carr, “Introduction. The Latin American Left in Theory and Practice,” in The New Latin American Left. Cracks in the Empire, ed., J. Webber and B. Carr , (Latham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2013):1-27.  

  5.  Donatella Della Porta, Massimiliano Andretta, Lorenzo Mosca, and Herbert Reiter Globalization from Below. Transnational Activists and Protest Networks, (Minneapolis, MN: The University of Minnesota Press, 2006): 196.  

  6.  Tanya Basok, “Reclaiming Democracy and Social Justice: The Arab Spring, Occupy, and Radical Imaginaries in the 21st Century,” Studies in Social Justice, 8, no. 1 (2014): 1-4.  

  7.  See John Holloway Change the World without Taking Power, (London: Pluto Press, 2002); Paolo Virno, A Grammar of the Multitude, (Los Angeles, CA: Semiotext, 2004); Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire, (New York: Penguin, 2005).  

  8.  For example,Anya Schiffrin and Eamon Kircher-Allen (eds.) From Cairo to Wall Street: Voices from the Global Spring, (New York: The New Press, 2012).  

  9.  Stephen D’Arcy, Languages of the Unheard, (New York: Zed Books, 2013): 17.  

  10.  Slavoj Žižek “Trouble in Paradise” London Review of Books, 35, no. 14 (July 18, 2013): 11-12 – online at http://www.lrb.co.uk/v35/n14/slavoj-zizek/trouble-in-paradise.  

  11.  Kurt Andersen, “The Protester,” Time Magazine, December 14, 2011 – available online at http://content.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,2101745_2102132,00.html.  

  12.  Žižek, “Trouble in Paradise.” (2013).  

  13.  Ernesto Laclau, On Populist Reason, London: Verso, 2005.  

  14.  Alexandros Kioupkiolis and Giorgos Katsambekis, “Introduction,” in Radical Democracy and Collective Movements Today. The Biopolitics of the Multitude versus the Hegemony of the People, (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2014): 17.  

  15.  Donatella Della Porta, “Social Movements in Neoliberal Europe,” Eutopia, May 21, 2014 – online at http://www.eutopiamagazine.eu/en/donatella-della-porta/speakers-corner/social-movements-neoliberal-europe.  

  16.  Charles Reeve, “The movements of the indignados and the class struggle - an interview with Charles Reeve”, Libcom.org, Jan 7, 2013 – online at https://libcom.org/library/movements-indignados-class-struggle-interview-charles-reeve  

  17.  Roberto Sáenz and Isidoro Cruz, “Después del Argentinazo: Ha Comenzado un Proceso Revolucionario” in Socialismo o Barbarie, 4, (January 2002); Pablo Barbetta and Karina Bidaseca, “Piquete y Cacerola, la Lucha es una Sola: ¿Emergencia Discursiva o Nueva Subjetividad?” in Revista Argentina de Sociología, 2, no. 2 (2004).  

  18.  See Antonio Negri and Giuseppe Cocco, “O Quilombo Argentino e o Trabalho da Multidão” in O Trabalho de Multidão (Rio de Janeiro: Museu da República e Editorial Gryphos, 2002).  

  19.  Luis Mattini, La Política como Subversión, (Buenos Aires: de la Campana, 2000); Colectivo Situaciones, Contrapoder: Una Introducción, (Buenos Aires: Ediciones Mano a Mano, 2001); Colectivo Situaciones, 19 y 20: Apuntes para el Nuevo Portagonismo Social, (Buenos Aires: Ediciones Mano a Mano, 2002); Colectivo Situaciones and MTD Solano, Hipótesis 891: Más Allá de los Piquetes (Buenos Aires: Ediciones Mano a Mano, 2003); Ana C. Dinerstein, “Power or Counter-Power? The Dilemma of the Piquetero Movement in Argentina Post-Crisis” in Capital & Class, 81(2003): 1-8; Ana C. Dinerstein, “Que se Vayan Todos! Popular Insurrection and the Asambleas Barriales in Argentina” in Bulletin of Latin American Research, 22, no. 2 (2003): 187-200; Raul Zibechi, Genealogía de la Revuelta. Argentina: La Sociedad en Movimiento, (Montevideo: Nordan-Comunidad, 2003).  

  20.  James Petras and Henry Veltmeyer What’s Left in Latin America? Regime Change in New Times, (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2009): 7.  

  21.  Gary Prevost, Carlos Oliva Campos, and Harry E. Vanden (eds.) Social Movements and Leftist Governments in Latin America. Confrontation or Co-Optation? (New York:Zed Books, 2012); Jennifer N. Collins, “New Left Experiences in Bolivia and Ecuador and the Challenge to Theories of Populism” Journal of Latin American Studies, 46, no. 1 (2014): 59-86.  

  22.  Catherine Corrigan-Brown, Patterns of Protest: Trajectories of Participation in Social Movements, (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2011) 20-22.  

  23.  Frances Fox Piven and James Cloward, Poor People’s Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail, (New York: Vintage, 1977).  

  24.  Doug, McAdam, John D. McCarthy, and Mayer N. Zald (eds.) Comparative Perspectives on Social Movements, (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1996).  

  25.  Susan Eckstein, “Where Have All the Movements Gone? Latin American Social Movements at the New Millennium” in Power and Popular Protest: Latin American Social Movements, ed.,S. Eckstein (Berkley: University of California Press, 2001), 351-406.  

  26.  Sidney, Tarrow, Power in Movement, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994).  

  27.  Cameron, Maxwell A. Cameron and Eric Hershberg, Latin America’s Left Turns, (NY: Lynne Rienner, 2010).  

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