The conversation took place during the 2016 Green Academy and is a part of the series of interviews conducted by Bartul Čović. Carlos Delclós is a Spanish sociologist and activist, and he participated in the Academy’s opening debate “Tipping points: what, where, when and who?”.
BARTUL ČOVIĆ: Can you explain to us the context of the Left in Barcelona which came on our radar after the electoral win of Barcelona En Comú? What kind of social groups does this platform try to represent and how do you comment on it from the perspective of social stratification, one of your areas of study?
CARLOS DELCLÓS: If you look at the areas of Barcelona that Barcelona En Comú won, they were working class areas where the consequences of the crisis were most dramatic. Those areas also have a rich history of worker organization. They were literally built by Andalucian, Galician and Valencian migrant workers.
For the most part, Barcelona En Comú seek to govern in the interest of those classes. They do have some trouble, though, particularly with people who generally do not fit in neatly with the broad, universalist discourse of citizenship. Migrants, for instance. For the most part, migrants are denied the right to vote, excluding them from electoral discourse. Then there is the issue of the “criminalized poor”, what some sociologists refer to as the underclass. Of course, Barcelona En Comú are not the only ones who do not know how to work on this topic—it is a problem of Left and society in general—but the challenges emerging in Barcelona are interesting and revealing. I recently wrote an article in Roar Magazine about a union that was started by the city’s street vendors. In Barcelona, the Right always tries to use street work as a lever against new Left governments. This time, however, the workers responded by empowering themselves. But when the Right attacks the vendors, they do so with a populist discourse about paying taxes that the Left doesn’t seem to know how to deal with. But in reality, the vendors are too poor to be taxed and in any case, their administrative status provides no formal channels for doing so.
The right wing is demanding fiscalization of their sector?
No, they are demanding violent repression. They just try to justify it by referring to fiscalization. The Right loves taxes when they’re forcing black and brown people to pay them. En Comú have tried to counter this with some tentative gestures, like trying to bring the union to a negotiating table. But then, predictably, the police and local businesses refused to negotiate with what they called an “illegal” union. It’s a tricky issue, but an important one because it provides a map of real power in a capitalist property regime and shows us the deficiencies of the Left in dealing with issues like social exclusion and the criminalization of poverty.
That said, I suppose one of the nice things about Barcelona right now is that we do have a nominally left-wing government facing a substantial amount of pressure from the Left. It is a good problem to have in Europe today, where what we are seeing is a proliferation of fucking fascists.
What kind of pressure are you talking about?
Pressure from the more radical social movements. There is also another radical left party in the institutions called the Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP), Catalan independentists who act almost as a sort of anarchist political party, if that makes any sense. They have their own contradictions as well, but they are not particularly interested in governing. They can, however, threaten Barcelona En Comú’s electoral space from the Left which, again, can be a good problem if it is approached the right way. The question, of course, is how to pressure from the Left without providing space for the Right. After a year and a half with the new government, we can’t quite tell if this is working.
A common problem for all New Left parties which managed to become a parliamentary force (or to form a government) is the alienation of the party base and its leadership. How big of a challenge is this for the Left in Spain? Do you think parties will manage to continue the struggles of the movements from which they were born?
In case of Barcelona En Comú, movement pressure does not come from inside the party so much as from actors outside the party. Specifically, it comes from those who cannot form a representative party. We are talking about people who are formally excluded from participation in the institutions, like migrants, or those who are ideologically opposed to representation, like anarchists. They’ve had some trouble with squatters and unions, in particular the anarcho-syndicalist CGT union, which controls public transportation services. They carried out a wave of strikes that Barcelona En Comú did not handle particularly well.
In any case, my point here is simply that pressure comes from organizations that are external to the party, and I think this is good. Look at Greece. There, the system is still perfectly intact even though Syriza won. This is because what they “won” was something that was organized precisely against their project. It is a paradoxical situation. The new Left parties reach the government riding an unprecedented wave of momentum and then they have to govern from a very defensive position. I think this is a good time for social movements to be anarchist in practice. They should work towards being fully autonomous, being independent from whoever is in power, being independent of the party and the state to the extent possible, antagonizing markets, the private sector, establishment powers and so on. Otherwise, they risk simply being an arm of the government, making it impossible to claim the popular legitimacy needed to successfully pressure for emancipatory change.
The big risk when social movements jump into the electoral arena is contributing to the mythology of representative democracy. I used to never vote. When the indignados movement occupied the squares in 2011, we chanted “They don’t represent us”. In Catalonia, we were more specific. We said, “No one represents us.” But recently I have voted for En Comú or Podemos, and I am fairly comfortable with the choice. Many abstentionists take voting way too seriously, as if they bought into the silly belief that who you vote for actually represents you. They don’t. When you vote, you’re just pushing for a different context in which to operate. It seemed to me that a vote for Podemos, for instance, would create a more favorable set of conditions for us to work in, with less repression towards movements, more willingness to respond to demands, more willingness to challenge the rule of the markets, and so on. I might be wrong, though, and end up being one of those alienated people you describe.
Franco’s politics of history was based around the idea of national reconciliation. That idea is alive today not only in Spain, but also in post-Yugoslav space. In Spain this was symbolically confirmed by erecting monuments such as “El valle de los caídos”. How important is it for us Leftists to attack this idea and other aspects of the third path narrative?
There are many parts of Spanish history that I’m proud of. For instance it was the workers’ movement that provided most of the resistance against Franco, whose support came from the land owners, the Church and the military. Even before the 1930s, Barcelona had a rich revolutionary history. They used to say that the cannons on the city walls were always pointed into the city and not outwards. This suggests the story of a city that is always rebelling. In their discourse, Barcelona En Comú quite explicitly try to connect with this tradition and with the concept of class struggle.
The Spanish Right would rather we didn’t talk about Franco today. They are obsessed with preventing what they refer to as the “Balkanization” of Spain. “Both sides did terrible things during the Civil War,” they say. “Look towards the future and don’t dwell on the past.” But we simply cannot. The only country in the world with more mass graves on record is Cambodia. What we call Spain today is the result of genocidal violence against the indigenous nations of the Americas, against Muslims and Jews, and against anyone believed to be a “red” following the Civil War. That is what we are being told to simply forget.