Voltaire at his desk with a pen in his hand. Engraving by Baquoy, ca. 1795. Wikicommons/ Public domain.When a month ago the ‘Manifesto for Civil Liberties in Spain and Europe’ was launched in Madrid, it followed the shift from shock to outrage over the ‘case of the puppeteers’: the High Court had ordered the incarceration of two puppeteers for performing a play in which the police plant a banner with the text “Alka-ETA” to incriminate a social activist.
What the play set out to denounce became a sordid reality: the puppeteers standing accused of inciting terrorism hours after the staging of their play, thereby becoming the main protagonists in a national theatre performance, with media outlets acting out as the puppets of conservative power and its vulgar, yet sophisticated, ruse of political pressure for electoral interest.
At stake was the democratic right to freedom of expression. Internationally, the refugee crisis was already evident, even though we had so far paid scant attention to the problem communicated through the images circulating on our screens: the Idomeni refugee camp on the border between Greece and Macedonia becoming a quagmire in which tens of thousands of people were waiting to continue their journey to other countries within the European Union.
Elaboration and dissemination of the manifesto
The manifesto for civil liberties was thus born out of a concern for the increasing restriction of rights fundamental to any democratic life, namely civil rights. The manifesto calls for their defence as an essential precondition for democracy and focuses on the multi-level crisis which engulfs Europe today. Austerity has not led to the promised recovery of economic growth, and stagnation manifests itself in increasing inequality and the concentration of wealth in the hands of the very few. The manifesto states:
“in the face of the growing unrest of citizens, many EU countries have openly opted for repressive policies. This can be seen in the reduction of institutional tolerance towards protest, in the repeated construction of the figure of the ‘enemy’ and the centrality of the ‘war on terror’ as a substitute for the legitimate principle of the right to security”.
And this attitude directly affects both the management of the refugee crisis and the exercise of rights by European citizens.
Dozens of activists, academics and elected officials, led by the American philosopher Noam Chomsky, the Italian writer Toni Negri, the founder of New Left Review, Tariq Ali, and feminist thinker Silvia Federici signed the manifesto, which has amassed approximately 2,500 signatures in the first week of its release.
The manifesto is another sign of the times in which we live in the way in so far as it was produced as a collaborative initiative promoted by a group of people from different backgrounds, people affiliated to a greater or lesser extent with different social movements and activist groups, of different ages and sensibilities.
The contact between these activists took place in the streets, in social movements and public debates. They were perfect strangers just a few years ago. In the course of a couple of meetings, two meals with long after-lunch talks in a couple of taverns in the city centre, ‘collective intelligence’ was put at the service of our common preoccupations; the group was organised and coordinated in a simple and rational way.
The knowledge and capabilities of each – depending on their personal interests and experience – were shared and valued in common and gradually turned into the essential pieces of the machinery that produced the manifesto and its web platform. What is more interesting is that this was an open and collective learning process through which the group had the opportunity to observe first-hand the way the manifesto developed, was diffused, and was introduced to its signatories and its readers. In a practical way it became possible to monitor the virtues and defects of our relationships through social networks and the media, the new possibilities for online activism and public debate as well as the challenges and difficulties.
Some commentators are unconvinced that this new activism through the Internet is capable of changing anything, limited as it may be to sofactivism and clicktivism. Some speak of a “digital swarm” that has no common soul and cannot become a single voice, or about the compulsive and even naive use that does not allow a thoughtful debate on complex realities or the chance to raise awareness. The socio-economic context may provoke defensive reactions that sometimes lead to more fear and hostility replacing openness to dialogue. Social cohesion is weakened and replaced by large social networks that are merely superficial.
Other commentators suggest that there is still interest in public issues and that digital media allow new creative forms of activism, organising and communicating, that work in synergy with an increase in popular participation in demonstrations, the gathering of signatures off-line and a critical attitude towards politicians, the financial sector and the capitalist economy. For example, many people received information through their digital networks regarding the murder of Berta Cáceres and signed online petitions to end violence or heard the call for demonstrations.
Without falling into a techno-utopian vision and without forgetting the traditional media and the streets, we need to critically analyse media technologies and take advantage of the communicative and participatory possibilities offered by the digital revolution.
Besides being one of the causes of the new political cycle that has opened up new spaces for politics and closed down others, the 15-M movement has implemented ways of relating in the city that had been weakened through successive years of economic growth, when it was not yet clear how illusory the safety and welfare of the middle class were.
We have witnessed the development of these connections in which inter- (generational, racial, national...) dialogue may lead not only to the salvation of civil rights, but to deepening their practical applications in the context of the crisis of the current democratic model. Perhaps it is time to dare to have a serious dialogue.
As we move forward, the past history and present day of Europe can be understood, not so much as a linear progression, but as a set of processes involving forces and counterpowers that either promote or hinder the progress of social rights and civil liberties. The present times demand a plural alliance of all democratic forces that are conscious of our past and preoccupied about the future of Europe, the planet and humanity.
A short history of the struggle for civil liberties in Europe
It is time to reaffirm our human dignity, with the memory of the past as a guide for the present and for the exercise of freedom in building a future where people and nature come first. We can learn from the historical processes that have improved the protection of civil liberties in Europe and better understand the counterforces that have limited them.
Historical memory is useful to remember the positive results of intercultural exchange against chauvinism and fanaticism or that solidarity improves societies in the face of fear and hatred.
The advance of freedom and gender equality in our societies would benefit from greater knowledge and understanding of the history of the witch-hunt, without forgetting, for example, the courage displayed by Porete in her defence of freedom of thought and expression. This develops in us a greater appreciation for the historical processes that have shaped us and fosters a sense of common humanity.
The hypocrisy of our democracies betraying their own principles is reminiscent of the double standard of Calvin when he began to act against the principle of freedom of conscience to which he had dedicated himself. His discourse could not hide the crime perpetrated against Servetus. Castellio spelled out the obvious and was punished for it: “When I reflect on what a heretic really is, I can find no other criterion than that we are all heretics in the eyes of those who do not share our views”.
Bruno’s words can be useful to remember the power of freedom of expression and truth against repression: “Perchance you who pronounce my sentence are in greater fear than I who receive it”. The disregard for evidence and the primacy of power remains in force, but already Galileo had said, “and yet it moves”.
Classical liberalism and the Enlightenment taught us that “no-one can compel me to be happy in accordance with his conception of the welfare of others, for each may seek his happiness in whatever way he sees fit, so long as he does not infringe upon the freedom of others”, in the words of Kant. We learned that we learn to be free by living in freedom and that freedom of thought is the basis of an emancipatory use of freedom of expression. We also learned about the value of geographical mobility.
Voltaire told us that the idea of freedom of expression lies in defending it for opinions which we disagree with. The French Revolution established academic freedom as a fundamental principle of public education that would be a key axis in the dissemination of knowledge oriented to the development of humanity, liberty, equality and fraternity.
But Bonaparte arrived and guided the country’s modernisation and education under state control for the benefit of the political and economic elites. In opposition to this model, Humboldt promoted a national public education system based on the principle of academic freedom and cooperation. But soon after, Fichte favoured a state education system based on Prussian patriotism, linked to the creation of an authoritarian and nationalist nation-state. Absolutist governments cracked down on Enlightenment groups, accusing them of being “Demagogues”.
During industrialisation, a government of the intellectual aristocracy was prompted in the service of a minority of proprietors. The working class opposed this project by developing the view that the emancipation of workers and of humanity can only be realised through collective solidarity and equality: I am free because we are free.
In Spain, Krausists and the Second Republic put academic freedom and free speech at the centre of a cultural programme for social change. But these projects were aborted by fascism. At the University of Salamanca, legionnaire Millán-Astray interrupted Rector Unamuno by exclaiming “die all intellectuals and long live death.” Unamuno’s axiom – “you will win but you will not convince” – should today become, ‘we will convince and we will win’; a democratisation of culture connected with a democratisation of political and economic systems.
The memory of the horrors of fascism and the post-war social consensus allowed greater legal, political, cultural and economic protection of rights and freedoms in the golden age of European democracies. In the United States, the civil rights movement promoted the democratisation of society and respect for cultural diversity. However, economic and political elites soon reacted in the 1970s with projects to counter the “democratic surge” of the 60s, as stated by the Trilateral Commission. If the problem was an “excess of democracy… needed instead is a greater degree of moderation in democracy”, establishing “desirable limits” through tighter economic and ideological control of cultural institutions. The programmes of massive surveillance and the cases of Assange, Snowden and Manning provide contemporary examples of the limits to freedom of information on a global level.
Threats to civil liberties in Europe
Today, flaunting cruel indifference, Europe abandons the African and Middle Eastern populations to their fate – and sometimes to their death in the Mediterranean. The lack of solidarity with populations who are fleeing atrocities originated in imperial adventures (Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya) or sponsored by sinister allies such as Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Emirates and by the European arms industry itself, is a demonstration of hypocrisy and cruelty we thought would happen never again. As if this were not enough, gestures of solidarity with the victims are punished, as has been seen in the case of the Sevillian firefighters arrested and tried in Athens, accused of people trafficking while they were supporting the refugees.
Women and girls carry the greater risks of suffering violence in the European refugee and migrant crisis. At the same time, austerity policies undermine women’s rights and increase the threat of gender violence.
France a laboratory
In Europe, a regression towards increasingly authoritarian regimes has become apparent. France itself, once a space for the conquest of freedoms and rights, has become a laboratory of a new militarist and repressive model. In response to the Charlie Hebdo attacks, the first movement of the (Social Democratic!) government was the activation of the Vigipirate system, designed in 1978 and whose ultimate refinement dates from 2015.
The terrorist attacks of November 13 (Bataclan, etc.) led Hollande to claim that it was “an act of war of the Islamic State”, although it is public knowledge that the attackers were born in Belgium and Paris. In terms of foreign policy, France acted violently, bombarding Raqqa (Syria), where the Islamic State was held to have its bases, brushing aside the criticism that civilians were being killed. ‘Put out the fire with gasoline’ seems to have been the slogan of Hollande’s government. Domestically, the government responded by declaring its State of Emergency: closing schools and universities, the general suspension of rights and guarantees, the deployment of the army in the streets and harsh border controls.
Belgium has acted in the same way after discovering that several of the terrorists were from its territory: it suspended New Year’s Eve celebrations and, for several days, Brussels remained paralyzed by repressive action that included the suspension of rights and guarantees. How distant seem those times when States responded to the threat of declared enemies by trying to reassure their societies. They have completely reversed that logic, adopting what Naomi Klein has called “The Shock Doctrine”: there is nothing more effective for the implementation of policies oriented to subtract economic, social and political rights from its population than keeping it terrorised by external threats, thereby appearing as the putative guarantor of the survival of our way of life.
Spain a spearhead
Spain is no stranger to this strategy of increasing the restriction on rights and freedoms. In fact it has been spearheading this trend. After the state of mobilisation and self-organisation initiated by the 15M-movement, and continued by the Mareas (Tides), platforms and social movements, the Establishment tried to restore consensus to address what they call the second Transition (it is worth remembering the assertion “the second time as farce”).
Behind this scenery of redundant theatricality, the escalation of repression continues: the enactment of the Gag Law that includes penal classifications more characteristic of a narrow-minded dictatorship than a democracy, the four-year prison sentence for Alfonso Fernández Ortega –‘Alfon’– without substantiated evidence, the pending trials of many activists who participated in different demonstrations (the Marches of Dignity, squats, etc.), the prosecution of Raúl Capín, a photographer whose ‘crime’ is to have registered the constant police arbitrariness in the street, and the threat to the right to strike that became apparent in the trial of the ‘Airbus 8’ workers.
Among the latest victims of this storm are the two puppeteers who dared at the carnival of Tetuán to dramatize an argument that challenged the repressive actions of the State. Appealing to a well-known strategy, they are accused of “exalting the terrorism of ETA and Al-Qaeda”.
Democracy in Europe is also being restricted by media concentration and manipulation and by the growing marketisation of the university system. In response, social mobilisation has begun, for example, to carry out campaigns for media reform or in defence of the public university in the UK.
The 15-M and the Occupy movement are attempts to put into practice the principle that, in the current historical moment, organisation and citizen participation are necessary to reverse the direction taken by governments and build a democracy that ensures the freedom of citizens to meet their own basic needs, and one that protects the exercise of the rights of all. A new cycle of collective struggle at a European level is awaiting us.
Support the Manifesto
The Manifesto for Civil Liberties in Spain and Europe is a collective response to increasing social inequality, the violation of human and social rights and setbacks in fundamental freedoms. It exists because we believe that only together we can build a Europe of the citizens that is democratic and protects the rights of all. You can read and support the manifesto here: http://www.porlaslibertadesciviles.org/