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“I wouldn’t talk about nationalism, but communitarianism”

Interview with the Spanish philosopher and Podemos Senate candidate, on the nation-state, nationalisms, populism left and right, conservatism, reformism and revolution, television and digital media. Long - 8,500 words.

Screenshot: Santiaga Alba Rico discussing “¿Podemos seguir siendo de izquierdas?” (“Can we Still be Leftwing?”) in Barcelona,2014. Vimeo. This interview took place at the Transeuropa Festival organized by European Alternatives from October 25 to 29, 2017 in Matadero, Madrid, with the objective of promoting pan-European solidarity and establishing collaborations between different activists involved in social, cultural and political transformation.

Joan Pedro-Carañana (JPC): I wanted to start by asking you about the Transeuropa Festival. How relevant are its aims, themes and visions for the future in the current context?

Santiago Alba Rico (SAR): I have to admit that I’m not that familiar with this initiative, but from what I’ve read, I don’t think there has ever been a more relevant moment, at a time of clear adversity, for seeking common horizontal connections between Europeans; connections that aren’t just political, but also cultural, aesthetic, and so forth. So, very relevant.

JPC: In a few hours you’ll be on a panel discussing the central topic of the festival. Specifically, the intention is to look simultaneously above and below the level of the nation-state, to promote joint governance at the European level and at the municipal level. What role does this leave for the nation-state? And what will you be saying? 

SAR: It’s a debate that troubles me, especially at this time. It also perplexes me a little. I’m not very sure that the opening premise for the debate is entirely true. It’s saying that nation-states have failed to handle the big challenges and big civilizing crises confronting humankind. It’s true that if we think in terms of the satisfaction of the basic needs of citizenry and the welfare of populations, what we call the nation-state has not only been revealed to be incapable of solving common problems, but has exacerbated them. However, if we think of the nation-state as an instrument for clearing the way without resistance to the only revolution taking place at present, which is the neoliberal revolution and a selfish and inequitable capitalist globalization, we must say it has fulfilled its role very well.

It has fulfilled it so well that the time has come to begin analyzing the nation-state binary and explain what in it has become problematic. It has fulfilled it so well that what we are witnessing, I believe, is a resistance by the nation to States that don’t protect their citizens and that limit themselves to very efficiently facilitating the private interests of the victors of neoliberal globalization. The problem that Europe is facing right now is a disconnect between the State and the nation, in which the nation is resisting in various ways.

So I wouldn’t talk about nationalism, but communitarianism. There is a general revival at the grassroots level, among social movements, but also among the identity-based right, of short distances; of everything that has to do with containment, security, and care. Short distances are very dangerous but they can also be very liberating, and I think what we’re seeing in Europe is, in a reaction against the neoliberal revolution, communitarian resistance on the right, exclusionary and xenophobic, which is winning, and other forms of resistance that are potentially democratizing, emancipating, and certainly not racist, but that are losing.

I don’t think we can speak of States and nations as if they responded to the same pattern in every case. In this difficult connection between two concepts that only occasionally overlap, we can distinguish different combinations: completely failed States with complex nations, failed States with simple nations, and very solid States with complex nations. I’m thinking of the Middle East, especially in Syria, where there seems to be a need, with all its challenges, for a proposal like the Kurdish one, for democratic confederalism and libertarian municipalism, to crystallize into a pact of non-violent coexistence between all the different nations in the region.

I don’t think there is room at this moment to imagine a return to the authoritarian Syrian nation-state, not even after Russia and Iran’s military victory. A more just and reasonable Syria – unattainable at present – should combine the complexity of the nation, democratic confederalism, and an increasing municipalist decentralization, in which the State is limited to managing critical resources or healthcare.

We also have the case of a failed State after a revolution in a non-complex nation, as in the case of Tunisia. Dictatorships always identify the State with the nation. They internalize the nation within the State in such a way that most citizens don’t feel represented by the State; they don’t feel like “nationals” of anywhere, which partly explains the retreat into religious identities.

When the Tunisian revolution broke out in 2011 and overthrew the dictator Ben Ali, it did it with the same flag behind which Ben Ali had hidden to rob and torture. It is the flag of national independence – that moment of national construction – and thus the uprising against the dictatorial State can be interpreted as a re-appropriation of the nation by the people. It is an appropriation that is much more inclusive than the authoritarian State and in a nation that is not complex because it is homogeneous in religious and ethnic terms. That revolution has attempted to rebuild a democratic State.

This reminds us that there are still many places in the world, places marked by gaping inequality, as is the case in a recently decolonized northern Africa, where the concept of nation is still very “modern”, not at all post-modern, in the sense used to refer to the original uprising against absolutism here in Europe.

The nation that was born in late 18th-century and 19th-century Europe was a reaction against the absolute power of monarchs, against the patrimonialist concept of territory: that is, the nation is that which represents the Third Estate, the commoners, the sans-culotte. Nation and homeland are clearly revolutionary terms of re-appropriation of a territory from absolute monarchs who consider it their exclusive property.

The processes of globalization have now greatly complicated the relationship of liberation from the absolutist State with nationhood and the people, posing new legal and political problems. Borders establish that the rights of a French citizen are not the same as those of a Tunisian citizen, but we cannot ignore the historical emancipatory value associated with the concept of nation, which is always there.

In Spain, Ferdinand VII’s followers insisted that he should make no concessions to the “patriots”. In the “Liberal Triennium” of the 1820s, following Riego’s insurrection, the supporters of Ferdinand VII and the absolute monarchy cried out “Death to the nation, long live chains!” The nation has always had a liberating potential in relation to the ancien régime that we must not forget and that in Tunisia, for example, has been very prominent.  

Reasserting the ideas of nation and homeland

JPC: If you believe that, strategically, it is still important to focus on the nation-state and to try to transform it in order to meet the demands and needs of the population, how should we approach its functions, both as a very important player in supporting globalization and, potentially, in defending the interests of citizens? We are currently debating this issue in Spain and Catalonia.  What is your analysis? 

SAR: Spain is a strong State, for centuries an imperial State, which has only been democratized recently and incompletely, given that it is a complex nation. What the Spanish State has done, and this is its particular historical hallmark, is to manage the denial or repression of that complexity.

At this time what is happening is that, in different ways, the complex nation that we call “plurinational” is resisting a State that no longer protects its citizens, that has dismantled the welfare state and that has only reformed the Constitution through a consensus internal to the regime, for the purposes of ceding to an economic model imposed from the outside.

In a Europe governed by the European Bank and in reality by the German banking sector, governments are losing their sovereignty. But it is possible ­– and this is why Podemos has played a fundamental role – to resignify the concept of nation and homeland in modern terms.

Modern and, at the same time, post-modern. Modern, because there is precisely a reassertion of the ideas of nation and the homeland that were emptied of meaning by the leaders of Spain’s Popular Party, who abandoned the nation for the brand. Spain was no longer “a unity of destiny in the universal order” as in the imperial tradition, but the “Spain brand”, a commercial, neoliberal concept. They put Spain up for sale. This is where Podemos was able to try to resignify the concept of nation or homeland in modern terms as a collective form of resistance against a State that had abandoned its people.

Spain is a complex nation, a plurinational nation. In Catalonia, the resistance against a State that has left its people defenseless takes a different form. We are seeing two parallel processes of resistance against the State. One, embodied by Podemos and its coalitions, aims to re-establish Spain democratically, or even to establish it, because Spain has always been more of a State than a nation.

The other is the ongoing process in Catalonia based on a highly anomalous coalition of fundamentally opposed parties: a coalescence around a clearly libertarian, transformative project, with its internal squabbles and differences but clearly anti-capitalist, anti-globalization and libertarian (the Popular Unity Candidacy), a social democratic party that has upheld the Spanish Constitution of 1978 (Esquerra), and a force clearly affiliated with the neoliberal right and one of the pillars of the Spanish regime that it is now in defiance (Catalan Democratic Party, previously Convergència). This coalition, which is basically a justified response to the policies of the State, has launched a process which, in my view, has fatally closed the window of opportunity opened 4 or 5 years ago, first with the 15-M anti-austerity movement and then with Podemos.

It’s true that that was an opportunity which, with the existing power ratio and the vast resources for restructuring that the regime has at its disposal, was too complicated to make a reality, also due partly to mistakes made by the left itself. In any case, what we are now seeing in Catalonia is not a conflict between democracy and nationalism or between two equivalent nationalisms, as is often claimed, and of course it is not a conflict between left and right, or between legality and illegality.

It is rather part of a conflict between two legalities, that of the central State and that of the regional Autonomous Communities and their institutions, but above all it is a conflict between two illegitimacies.

The illegitimacy of a State that is applying the law quite arbitrarily according to a version of Article 155 that was thrown out in the draft of the 1978 Constitution. (NB. Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution gives the Spanish government the right to intervene if a regional government (Autonomous Community) fails to comply with the Constitution or takes action that would seriously undermine Spain’s national interests. It is the statute that the Madrid government have used to justify intervention in Catalonia following its October referendum on separation.)

It is also acting through an Attorney General who has been censured by Congress, with two censured ministers and with a severely undermined legitimacy since the decision of the Constitutional Court in 2010 overturning the statutory reform that had been supported by an overwhelming majority of Catalans.

There is legality but no legitimacy. And on the other side it is the same: there is no legitimacy. Not because it is not legitimate to claim the right to self-determination. I believe that the Catalan people should choose how and in what way they want to form part of the complex nation that would be the re-established, or finally established Spain.

What cannot be done is to establish a country with half the population against it. A country can be governed very comfortably with 48% of the vote. The Popular Party governs comfortably with much less support. But a country cannot be established with 48% support, or in reality, twenty-something percent of the general population.

In this sense, what you have are two opposing illegitimacies in a situation in which it is not objectively possible to take a clear position, I would even say that it would be dishonest to take a clear position. At the same time, if you are not dishonest, if you don’t have a clear position, it is impossible to have any effect on the situation. And as in so many other occasions in history, we are faced with what Kant said: that history is made by the devils, by the misguided, by the most convinced or the most irrational.

Cover picture of “¿Podemos seguir siendo de izquierdas?” (“Can we Still be Leftwing?”). The Raft of the Medusa by Théodore Géricault, 1818.Louvre Museum. Wikicommons. Some rights reserved.

Podemos, Catalonia and populism

JPC: Bertrand Russell said that it’s easier to win when you have an army of dogmatic followers who are easily mobilized. You’ve spoken about how Podemos was born out of a hope to reform the State, not only for Catalonia but for the whole of Spain, and that, obviously, it had little chance of success because of the correlation of forces and power on the right in the country. You’ve also mentioned that on the left there were some major mistakes. 

SAR: I think Podemos was clearly born out of the 15-M movement and out of the awareness that there is a Spain with no memory of its past, a young, well-educated, middle-class Spain for whom the original sins of the transition, a legitimate obsession of the traditional left, mean nothing: the memory of the victims of the dictatorship, of the succession of King Juan Carlos as Franco’s heir, the consensus of elites that swept all of the demands of the left aside.

All those things that to the more educated people on the left were so important, to most of the Spanish population no longer mattered. We can see this as something negative, of course, and it is; but the positive, liberating difference of Spain compared to Europe (until the regressive mess of Catalonia) has been just this: its lack of memory, the fact that a Spain that has an imperial, National Catholic history, of successive dictatorships, of a series of coups d’état, in which attempts at democratization have always been thwarted, has forgotten its whole past. First, a dictatorship that lasted longer than any of the 19th century and which, for that very reason, gave Spain a bleak stability, erased the memory of freedom. Then, Spain’s integration into the European consumerist economy erased the memory of that first erasure.

I like to tell it this way. There was a Tunisian historian of the 14th-15th century, perhaps you know of him, Ibn Khaldun, an Arabic precursor to Machiavelli and Marx, who in the introduction of more than a thousand pages to his World History ponders the reason why God kept the Israelites wandering in the desert for 40 years before allowing them to enter the promised land. His answer is very good. Ibn Khaldun says that 40 years is the length of a generation, and everyone who had memories of their slavery in Egypt had to die so that a new people with no memory of their subjugation could enter the new land.

In Spain, the opposite happened. There were 40 years in which Franco erased the memory of freedom. Then, in another 40 years, the regime of the 1978 Constitution, with the admission of Spain to the European Union and an anthropology of accelerated consumerism, erased the other half of the memory.

And we Spaniards came to 15-M with no memory. That is what 15-M really revealed. For the 15-M movement, where we’d come from didn’t matter; what mattered was the painful discovery contained in the slogans “they call it democracy and it’s not” and “they don't represent us.”

But it was a discovery; not a traditional leftist discourse based on the memory of a history that needed to be turned around in our favor. The battle between two sides, between Antonio Machado’s two Spains, was over; after all, the 19th century, which in our country began in 1812 and lasted until 1875, was over. That could be seen as very sad.

(NB: The Spanish poet Antonio Machado (1875-1939) makes reference to “two Spains” in a short, untitled poem in his Proverbios y Cantares. The image in the poem is often invoked by Spaniards to refer to the polarization between conservative traditionalists and forward-looking progressives that has marked the country’s history over the past century.)

For people of my generation, having to give up certain flags and certain songs could have been very hard, but at the same time it was an unprecedented opportunity to democratize Spain once and for all. Democratizing it meant re-establishing that nation that had never been, taking into account its plurinational complexity. In this sense, not only did Podemos manage to resignify the concept of the nation, but for the first time in this country the taboo subject of the national question was raised openly and debated in the parliaments and in the cafés.

It managed to connect with millions of people who had perceived the limitations of the “they call it democracy but it’s not” slogan in their everyday lives, in their difficulties in making it to the end of the month, in their children’s need to leave the country to find work, in the decline of education or healthcare. It managed to connect with a potential majority by disconnecting from that memory that is nothing but a dead weight now.

What mistakes did Podemos make? By abandoning its original project, it has turned into a traditional party of the left. Since the party’s Second Citizen Assembly in 2017, Podemos isn’t relaunching the United Left anymore; it’s relaunching the Communist Party. In fact, if you look at who has taken over the direction of Podemos, all of them joined later and all of them came from the Communist Youth Union.

This is having very serious effects both at the level of discourse and at the level of organization and strategy. It is already an antiquated organization, outdated, caught in the trap of a highly personality-driven party apparatus, like the traditional political parties, very vertical, with a very small group at the top, with a discourse based increasingly on accusations and less on proposals.

In the case of Catalonia, which is certainly a very difficult issue to manage, we have seen how, in the view of Spanish public opinion, Podemos appeared as a party that denounced the Spanish government and sided with the separatists.

It has not succeeded in introducing its own vocabulary. Of course, because it was hard to do so, but also because it had no proposal for an inclusive project for the whole country, in the context of a polarization fed by the two sides that made it seem that you could only either be Spanish according to the Popular Party model or support a secession process that didn’t have the sufficient support of the Catalan population.

In this sense, I think Podemos is going to lose a lot of votes in the elections to come. And I regret that. I think it’s a party that I will vote for anyway, but that in a certain sense I no longer support. It was my party. I was one of the people who signed its Foundational Statement and I’ve been there from the beginning. I was a Senate candidate for Podemos. And yet, at this point, I think Podemos is at risk of turning into a minor pillar, a grumbling protest party in a restored regime under the 1978 Constitution, but a chaotic version due to the crisis in Catalonia.

 

JPC: All this is very much linked to so-called populism. In Europe there is a lot of discussion about the populism of the right. In Spain, it’s a progressive or leftist populism that Podemos is offering. What’s your analysis of this brand of populism? 

SAR: It’s a question that is both theoretical and political, and also somewhat complex. To define it or describe it briefly, I think that populism is the attempt to turn the symbolic and emotional level into a political project.

It is the recognition that the symbolic, discursive level is just as substantial, just as performative and just as decisive as the actual material level. In contrast with an orthodox Marxist left that would consider that only pure and transparent consciousness of the class struggle will have liberating effects, populism insists that there never has been and never will be transparency, that transparency is the worst form of alienation, that instead there are identity aggregation mechanisms that construct collective subjects that may be liberating or, conversely, reactionary and regressive.

Therefore, there could indeed be a populism of the left and a populism of the right. This means we need to accept that we are moving on two levels that should never be completely separated: a symbolic-discursive level and an axiological level of principles that must always be kept in view, because if we lose sight of it, our movements would become purely pragmatic and self-satisfying, with a communitarianism that is self-absorbed or excluding and therefore not emancipating.

The 15-M movement made it clear that there is a need to resignify a whole series of terms that have been “set loose”, like homeland or nation, concepts that act as an emotional catalyst for defenceless and neglected populations.

One clear example is the formation of “security”. Right-wing populist discourse invokes security against the alien threat, the refugee crisis or terrorism, and thus demands responses linked to identity and also to law enforcement. What we need to understand – and I think that 15-M understands it clearly – is that security is having a home, that security is making it to the end of the month, it’s knowing that someone is going to look after your children and it’s being able to be treated for cancer if you contract it. That is security.

Populism means, in my view, that the battle is waged not only in unions or at factories – at least where they still exist – but also on the symbolic level, and consequently, that it is just as necessary to fight for words as it is to fight for territories or property or wealth.

JPC: The traditional left has failed for decades in the symbolic struggle, while populism by contrast, both on the right and the left, has demonstrated that it does in fact have a great capacity for mobilization. But in Spain, Laclausian populism has been criticized precisely because of the emphasis on the discursive, which has led to a gap between what they say and what they actually do. 

SAR: I don’t think this is a question that has to do with populism, even less with Laclau’s version of populism. It has more to do with the mechanisms of institutional politics themselves and with what we call electoralism, which you’re inevitably trapped in from the moment you agree to fight for power in electoral terms.

The boundary between electoralism and populism is really very small, and the proof is that the same people who have accused Podemos of populism, even comparing it to the French National Front, are the ones who have been making scurrilous use of electoralism for 40 years by breaking their electoral promises.

No, I think it’s a problem that has less to do with the fight on the symbolic level than with the fight on the institutional level through elections.

Precisely what many people in the 15-M movement perceived and expressed was the obvious remoteness of a political class that they didn’t feel represented by, because they saw a disparity between what they said and what they did. 

Podemos has often made the mistake of substituting populist discourse for electoralist and even opportunist discourse. As a result, many people have perceived that the difference they attributed to Podemos and the reason that many had joined it – its originality, inventiveness and authority in fighting on the discursive level – was turning into a tactical ploy with a highly variable structure, with erratic changes of discourse that reflected a lot of internal disputes that would later come to light and that ended up undermining voter support for Podemos.

This dissonance led a lot of people to begin identifying Podemos with the old political forces that it had been created to oppose, and to conclude that “they don’t represent me either.” And then there was the internal division which suddenly, in the eyes of many people, turned Podemos into a typical left-wing movement that cannot be relied on to govern because they can’t even agree among themselves.

JPC: I am thinking about the iron law of the oligarchy (Michels) that has affected Podemos, that creates a dissonance in desiring and promising a democracy which you are then unable to practice internally. When people realize this they think, “if you’re not capable of solving your own problems, how are you going to solve the country’s?”

But moving onto a somewhat more technical question about populism, who are the people? You? Me? The right-wing guy in the bar? Populist discourse can lead to a silencing of alternative voices that are pluralistic – social movements, feminism. If you refer to “the people” in general terms, don’t you effect a discursive homogenization of what in reality is heterogeneous, those multiple different voices? Mightn’t this generate difficulties in organizing movements for social and political change? 

SAR: What we need to do is to accept that it is only possible to intervene politically through a subject, that any collective subject, when it intervenes, presupposes a certain homogeneity, a functional and entirely abstract homogeneity. This is, in effect, the problem today, because what has substantially fallen apart is precisely that homogeneity.

In fact, it doesn’t exist any more. Before, you could have a proletariat that worked more or less under the same conditions everywhere in the world and could recognize one another as part of the same collective body.

Homogeneity has substantially disintegrated and fragmented. This makes it hard to build narratives, and we mustn’t forget that a subject is above all a narrative. The experience of the last few years (with 15-M as a model) is revealing. Highly voluble subjects are constructed that are recognized as such at the moment of their intervention, with narrative outbursts, but at the same reserving a heterogeneity that is simply a fact. It is no longer a case of invoking alliances between workers, peasants and students, as it once was. Now the students are also unemployed workers, many of them outside the country; the workers are, in a few cases, civil servants, while others are in precarious employment and others are long-term unemployed; and the rural sector is practically nonexistent.

Thus, what we have is a heterogeneity that experiences a chemical precipitation at the moment it intervenes to create de facto collective subjects, sometimes functional, that have an impact on history, as we have seen in the demonstrations in Catalonia, or in 15-M.

The 15-M movement, which was very heterogeneous, united around it a phantasmal collective: the 80% of the Spanish population that supported it. Is that a collective subject? It is. That 80% in that moment constituted a fulminating, explosive and disruptive subject, which is the new form adopted by historical intervention (from terrorism to transformative mobilization) in a post-revolutionary world in which the (Christian or Enlightenment) age of progress has been replaced by the gnostic age of instant revelation.

Now only what isn’t expected is what always happens; and what isn’t expected is repeated in outbursts or hatchet blows, sometimes liberating and sometimes destructive. The collective subject is not a construction but a convergence.

I would like to continue with a little more about Podemos, because I’ve finished on a defeatist note and it’s important to remember that Podemos is associated with a whole series of forces for change that have in fact introduced transformations in this country.

They’ve done it, furthermore, in Spain’s big cities. In these moments of regression, when the crack that opened up six years ago is hurriedly being sewn up, it is very important to stress the need to preserve these tentative conquests.

The real challenge for the left is to last; and lasting, in the eyes of the more radical sectors, always becomes suspicious: whenever something lasts a while it veers to the right. We need to break with this logic and the municipalities are a good platform. Only on the municipal level, and perhaps on the regional level of the autonomous communities, do e have the possibility to reverse the power ratio, not only between the forces for change and those of the regime but also within the forces of change, in favor of sectors that really believe in the need to offer the Spanish a different political model.

Because we human beings are very empirical and try to measure everything with our own bodies, the fight on the symbolic level becomes decisive: you have to have tangible foundations that you can hold up as models and as examples. We need something we can hold in our hands. Examples of good management, examples of clearer and more liberating discourse, examples of the defence of the most vulnerable, all discursively effective and technically functional.

JPC: I was struck by your own answer to the question of whether we can continue to last as leftists. Your answer was a yes but: only if we are revolutionaries in the economic sphere, reformists in the institutional sphere, and conservatives in the anthropological sphere. Could you explain further? 

SAR: It’s true that, from the outset, the dividing line of history is the class struggle, the history of multiple struggles, but above all the class struggle. There is a division between the powerful and the weak, between the economic elite and the subjugated commoners, between, as is rhetorically declaimed these days, the 1% and the 99%, figures that are a little manipulative and abusive, but that underline this division in economic terms.

We mustn’t forget that it has only been since 1789 and the rise of what we call modernity that this division has been expressed through a spatial, anatomical opposition between the right and the left. We human beings have nothing but our bodies to express symbolic polarities. Above and below, right and left, big and small. We always use bodily metaphors to express social differences, cultural differences. The left-right difference arose somewhat by chance and on the symbolic level it negatively marks the possibilities of victory for the left.

As you must know, this division emerged in the context of the French Revolution: in the National Assembly, to the left of the king sat those who were against the monarchy, while those who supported it sat on the right. This very recent historical circumstance means that, from that moment, we have used left and right to describe two politically opposed world views. It is true that the right-left difference is a culturally loaded concept in all world traditions. “Left” is a marked term that is viewed with suspicion in nearly all languages and cultures of the world.

In a brilliant book, Chris McManus notes the right-leaning nature of world culture: all the peoples of the Earth, in effect, have always identified the left with clumsiness, with darkness, with femininity, with insufficiency, with death, while they have identified the right with goodness, light and justice (even to the point that the regulation of justice is referred to in Spanish as “derecho” [“right”]). We should also remember that in Latin, the opposite of the right is sinister. In pre-political cultural terms, this opposition is clearly unfavorable to the left.

But it is a difference that has served us for years to express a political difference in space; that is, in the visible realm of relations. This argument was used by Kant against Leibniz to defend the absolute nature of space: that the right and left hands are symmetrical, equal, but, if you cut them off, they cannot be superimposed and are therefore not interchangeable. They are symmetrical but at the same time opposite. What did Kant argue this for? To explain that there were differences in space that no reasoning can resolve. That logic cannot resolve. The differences of the body provide very useful visible metaphors because they signal differences or divisions that cannot be resolved through a logical reconciliation. This is why politics is left-right.

Could we replace this metaphor with another one? If we were to accept that the left is completely loaded with pre-political cultural baggage, but also with political crimes (consider, for example, Stalinism, etc.… half propaganda but half an undeniable reality), I think it would be wise to put this opposition to one side and look for other oppositions in our own bodies, such as above and below; to look for them in any case in space, because symbolically we cannot step outside of space. That’s why we should not strive to keep being leftist if we want to keep defending the values which I at least associate with the left, and which have to do with social justice but also with political democracy.

Capitalism, in itself revolutionary, prevents us from being reformist...

JPC: Regarding being conservative in the anthropological sphere, maybe as I’m a little younger than you are, but this sounded to me a little like anthropological pessimism. 

SAR: I think it is quite the opposite. I know that the idea of being conservative in the anthropological sphere always generates controversies or misunderstandings. But let’s start with the need to be revolutionaries in the economic sphere. Why? Because it’s pretty obvious that capitalism, with its intrinsic quest for infinity, is unreformable.

It is not only incompatible with democracy and with institutional stability, but it is radically incompatible with the survival of the planet, with the capacity for renewing the planet and its limited material resources and, therefore, I think we need to transform the economic foundations.

How to do that is a different question. We need to be very careful for two reasons. The first is that capitalism, which exploits territories but also streams of consciousness, is not just an economic system; it is a civilization and it is enmeshed in our souls while it distorts our bodies. The second is that, when it has been attempted, it has been done based on the utopianism of transparency, trying to eliminate all mediations (money, State, market) that need to play some kind of role in any fairer and more reasonable complex economic system.

What is obvious is that land, energy, education, and health cannot be in the hands of capital. And it is going to hold onto those spaces with all the brutal inertia of its quest for infinity. Therefore, capitalism, as an economic structure, is not reformable.

As far as the reformist nature of the institutions is concerned, this should be obvious. If it is not obvious among the left, this is the consequence of a certain classical Marxist tradition that has identified the right with the “bourgeois right” and, therefore, with an instrument of class domination.

We overlook the fact that in any other possible world, the division of powers is a good thing, habeas corpus is a good thing, the prohibition of torture is a good thing. In short, that the rule of law is as favorable an invention for humanity as the wheel. And that we have to keep the wheel and the rule of law.

What we do want is a rule of law that is real, conceived to protect the most vulnerable and not the most privileged, and that can also be reformed, two things that are quite incompatible with the “free market”. A rule of law in which it would be possible to reform the constitution, either because new things have happened, or because all living things and all human products, including institutions, tend to age and break down.

Precisely that which capitalism, in itself revolutionary, prevents us from being is reformist. I don’t want to be a revolutionary; it’s very tiring. I want to establish a reformable order, and this entails accepting the whole institutional legacy of the Enlightenment, and adding other legacies and traditions of resistance to it: the indigenous tradition with its attention to Mother Earth, or the feminist tradition as the bearer of a true universal humanism. So it’s about trying to establish a socioeconomic order in which this whole institutional legacy can finally be effective and, moreover, susceptible to reform.

Finally, we need to be conservatives in the anthropological sphere. Firstly because, obviously, we need to conserve the condition of all common goods, which means the Earth itself, threatened now at the height of the Anthropocene by human intervention. Thus, as Günther Anders said, we are compelled to be ontological conservatives. It is essential to be conservative on the anthropological level because I believe that what has harmed capitalism most are social ties.

If you remember what Marx said in the Communist Manifesto in 1848 (“all that is solid melts into the air”), it is impossible to ignore this aspect that Polanyi would later explore so lucidly. It is true that in Marx, as opposed to Polanyi, there was a certain cosmopolitan delectation, because he was an Enlightenment progressive, but there was also outraged condemnation in his accusation of the “bourgeoisie” as the real cause of the destruction of the family through the manufacturing industry. I do think that it’s very important, in this sense, to speak of conservatism, to defend social ties, short distances.

It’s true that short distances are dangerous because social ties can be asphyxiating. But what we need to do is to divest the ties of unequal power relations that have leeched onto them. For example, take the case of the patriarchy. It is very obvious that the ties have been exploited by the patriarchy to such an extent that historically the woman has been the one responsible for care. There is no historical necessity that requires women to hold exclusive responsibility for care. Indeed, at this time we believe that care is in a sense the basis not only of the social revolution but also of the political welfare of most of the public. Thus, to conserve the ties that have been eroded or damaged by a capitalism that generates single consumers is more than a necessity: it’s a priority.

We need to be conservative

JPC: You’ve developed many of these ideas with Carlos Fernández Liria, and the critique the two of you make of the left for having renounced the Enlightenment, as if it achieved nothing, as if it was all darkness and no light, seems very useful to me. You explain that the problem is that the emancipating capacity of the Enlightenment has not been fulfilled by capitalism, that capitalism hasn’t allowed it. The same is true of the term conservatism, associated with the right, when most people want to preserve certain values that the neoliberal revolution is destroying: family ties, stability, security, even romantic relationships. 

SAR: Effectively, that’s it. This is what the majority need to be made to understand. What is really destroying the emotional, affective ties, the most basic commitments, is precisely neoliberalism.

JPC: Thatcher wasn’t a conservative, she was a revolutionary. 

SAR: An absolute revolutionary. And faced with the erosion of social ties that her policies caused – from class solidarity to the ethics of care – the reactionary temptation is strong.

That’s why the left needs to take up the defence of the family, on the condition of recognizing that the patriarchal nuclear family is not the only family model. What is important is to understand that the value of bodies, like the value of any object, is derived from the work invested in them, from the work and the time invested in caring for them. From how much I’ve been looked at, from how much I’ve been touched. That’s what gives a body value.

Looking and touching are tasks that for centuries the patriarchy has entrusted to women, but we can all touch and look. In this sense, I think it’s very important to conceive of very different families, homosexual or single-parent families, that ensure that there will always be “parents” touching and looking and children touched and looked at. Because in the end what consumer capitalism has achieved is that the only thing we look at are images spread on social networks at unattainable speeds.

Today, nothing has a body; nothing lasts long enough before our eyes to take shape and become valuable and interesting.  So we need to be conservative. Conservative with things, mountains, bodies, and ties.

JPC: The origins of conservatism in the US lie with Abraham Lincoln, and a Republican Party that was very different to the one today, close to the farmers and the working class.

Thinking about this division you propose between revolutionaries, reformists and conservatives, I’ve reached a conclusion and I’d like to know your opinion.

In each of these dimensions: the economy, institutions and the anthropological sphere, we could try to combine the three dimensions of social change, that is, to be conservative, reformist and revolutionary in each. For example, in the economic sphere, reforms that help accumulate power and eventually to achieve a revolution. In the anthropological sphere, to conserve a lot but also to reform things, even without the fantasy of the New Man. But as we create or change the social circumstances, those circumstances also change the way people are. And by changing those circumstances we could have a way of being and relating that is much more emancipatory, even revolutionary. 

SAR: I agree completely. The division I propose is, like all divisions, conventional and rhetorical and aims to provide a basic blueprint for explanation and action, but it’s important to understand that the boundaries are very porous. What you’re saying seems very sensible to me and, in the case of the anthropological sphere, we can think, for example, of Spain, the least homophobic country in the world, according to international reports.

The other day a friend told me that she went to the wedding of her homosexual brother and that the father of the groom, a conservative and traditional man, was crying with emotion, unable to contain it. Being conservative means you have to celebrate “marriages”, that you have to commemorate, mark events and dates; celebration is essential, and how could you not be excited if your son or daughter is getting married?

It doesn’t matter to whom. In this sense I do think that we’ve advanced and that we mustn’t stop; there’s no need to conserve everything, what we need to conserve are the forms, the festivities, the ceremonies, and the ties. Bodies can change but ties have to be conserved. If they’re not we will end up accepting conservatism on the terms proposed by the patriarchy, the Catholic Church, or reactionary thinking.

The erosion of the credibility of mainstream media

Avería Witch taking control of TV. Corporación de Radio y Televisión Española. JPC: A couple more questions in conclusion. The first could be interesting for the international readership of openDemocracy. In the 1980s you were a scriptwriter on a legendary programme on TVE, La Bola de Cristal [Crystal Ball], which propounded statements like “Long live evil, long live capital !”. For a public outside Spain, could you tell us about that experience and what diabolical commie scriptwriters like you were doing there... 

SAR: This was a programme whose approach was never really repeated, born at a very particular moment in Spanish history when there was perhaps more freedom than at any moment before or since, when we representatives of the La Movida movement – a movement of aesthetic, cultural and sexual renewal – coincided with the remnants of militant Marxism passed down by the Spanish transition to democracy.

In that unexpected window of freedom, we simply made a programme in which we said whatever came into our heads. In theory, it was a programme aimed at children, but it ended up being watched by older people.

I, for example, who was in charge of the first half hour, which was for the youngest viewers, and which featured puppets, ended up telling viewers about primitive accumulation or colonialism.  To do this, I used fables and stories, but greatly inspired by Marx, Brecht and Jonathan Swift. I ended up talking about contemporary politics, criticizing the Socialist Party in government at the time a lot, but also criticizing the consumer society, junk food, US cultural imperialism, and above all, alerting people even then, when Spanish TV was still finding its feet, against the dangers of television.

I should point out that the cancellation of the program in 1988 coincided with the approval of the law that approved and regulated private TV networks in Spain. La Bola de Cristal invited people to turn off the TV and open a book; and to collectivize our problems. That’s why on every episode, with different visual content, appeared the well-known slogan: “Solo no puedes, con amigos sí” [“Alone you can’t, with friends you can”].

JPC: Today we are in a very different context, where the new digital media and social networks have become so important. What’s your opinion of their use in emancipatory projects on the one hand, but also to control, monitor, spread propaganda, reinforce authoritarianism? 

SAR: I have two observations on this question. Although they are not a tool, digital media offer possibilities that have two uses, and the predominance of one over the other depends on the ratio of dominant forces.

I think it would be very disingenuous to believe that the new technologies, social networks and alternative media constitute an immediate victory for the emancipatory forces, for the simple reason that the same power relations that exist in the world have been transferred to the web.

This makes it another disputed territory rather than an instrument of liberation. We have to fight for analog territory but also for digital territory, where the big corporations and governments also run the show. You need only compare the number of pornographic websites or e-commerce websites, or even of big mainstream newspapers with the number of alternative news sites.

I’m also very worried about another aspect of these new technologies. We always think about what they enable us to do, but never about what they force us to do. In this respect, the so-called new technologies – unlike in previous technological revolutions – have introduced extremely hybrid gadgets, so that we don’t know whether they are tools, territories or vital organs.

Probably they are all three at once. If you have a hammer, but you don’t have a nail, you don’t take it out of the toolbox. It would be absurd to say: “seeing as how I have a hammer, I’m going to use it.” A computer connected to the web or a cell phone connected to the web is not exactly a tool; it’s more like a vital organ, and that’s where things start to get complicated. Because although you can say that you’re not going to use the hammer because you don’t have a nail, you can’t say that today you’re going to leave home without your right kidney or your liver.

In a way our relationship with new technologies is already an organic relationship. And it’s so organic that it’s the only vital organ we have to which our bodies are somehow residual, an impediment or an obstacle that keep us from moving as fast as the networks demand of us, in a context dominated by technology in which we’ve substituted succession for simultaneity.

The networks have imposed a regime of simultaneity which, from the outset, is quite incompatible in physical terms with a finite brain and which at the same time inserts us into a biological network that is always alive, that while I’m sleeping is still on; this generates a great deal of anxiety, because it means that we’re outside of life while we’re sleeping, I’m outside of life while I’m talking to you in a café unless someone is recording the moment.

What is happening in your body and around it is no longer important and the “event” with a capital “E” is always somewhere else, and accessible using the new technologies. In this sense, I think the new technologies force us to bow our heads (literally) while Neolithic dignity forced us instead to stand up tall.

They force our truly free decisions to be violent. I always explain it this way, hyperbolically and gruesomely but quite realistically: to disconnect your computer from the web is like committing euthanasia on a relative. If the only freedom you have involves committing euthanasia on a loved one (“pulling the plug on life”), the new technologies don’t seem to make us very free. Their very convenience turns into a tyranny.

Having said this, there is no doubt that at a time when there was a clear erosion of the credibility of mainstream media ­– I would say this began in the Gulf War in 2003 – having access to alternative media or networks where you can exchange information has had a positive effect.

There is a constantly increasing (but still insufficient) sector of the population that is turning off the TV to get their news online. This has huge dangers too, because if you haven’t been previously informed or previously educated, you could end up accepting the authority of the most ludicrous sources. Conspiracy theorists, for example, have found extremely fertile ground on social networks and this is very dangerous because in switching off a news source you don’t trust, you could end up with sources just as fake or worse than the ones you left behind.

What I mean is that social networks are not spaces of unspoilt nature that we rely on to find the transparent truth; instead, just like newspapers, they require prior education that the networks themselves don’t give, but which they contribute to eroding or in a way impeding.

JPC: Your explanation has reminded me of McLuhan’s axiom that technologies and the media are extensions of the human body and that this could have an emancipating logic; the potential is there. But that the reverse could also happen where we human beings become extensions of the technology, such as in the case of enslavement to the iPhone.  

SAR: Exactly, like the Matrix… our bodies are terminals, they are the massive reservoir on which machinery that we don’t control can feed. I always doubt my analysis of technology because I have the conviction that if anything determines our approach to reality, it is precisely the fact that we are extensions of technological contexts.

I was born in a technological context very different from the one I live in now, so I no longer know when I’m thinking in a technological context that is on the verge of disappearing, when I’m thinking in the technological context in which I’m living, and when I’m thinking (and I’d like to give this hypothesis a chance as well) outside both: when I’m thinking from something like a precarious standpoint (a Kantian perspective) that introduces arguments that cannot be entirely settled in any context.

Understanding Media. The Extensions of Man (1964). Wikimedia Commons. Some rights reserved.

About the authors

Santiago Alba Rico is a writer and essayist. After studying philosophy at the Complutense University of Madrid, he became the screenwriter of the legendary 80s television program "La Bola de Cristal" (The Crystal Ball), and has published more than twenty books on politics, philosophy and literature, as well as three children’s tales and a play. Since 1988 he has lived in the Arab world, translated the Egyptian poet Naguib Surur, and the Iraqi novelist Mohammed Jydair into Spanish. He regularly collaborates with different media (Público, Cuarto Poder, CTXT, Atlántica XXII and others). He is a former advisor of Podemos and was a Podemos candidate to the Senate.

Joan Pedro-Carañana, is in the Communications Department at Saint Louis University-Madrid Campus. His doctoral research was in communication, social change and development (Complutense University of Madrid). Joan has been active in a variety of social movements and is interested in the role of media, education and culture in the transformation of societies.

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