How did a handful of people in a room in Barcelona grow to become Spain’s nation-wide anti-eviction movement? How did those in mortgage arrears, a sector of society overwhelmed by debt, faced with the immanent possibility of homelessness and often suffering from unemployment, become a political actor which could place the housing crisis at the centre of the national conversation and put collective action back on the map for millions of people?
To answer these questions is to understand the Plataforma de Afectados por La Hipoteca, (PAH, or Mortgage Holders Platform) the most dynamic, widespread and popular of the movements which have arisen in Spain since the crisis of 2008. For activists and those concerned with social change across Spain, the PAH has been a game changer. The organisation, formed through a grassroots network of local groups and with strong participatory and horizontal characteristics, has re-written the rule book of effective political action. To date, it seems to us the significance and the potential of the movement is currently being woefully underestimated outside of Spain.
Interestingly, the Spanish context (despite its oft-cited anarchist history) was an unlikely one for the development of the anti-eviction movement. Radical activism around housing had been dominated by the squatter or Okupa movement which, while it had achieved important spaces of ‘youth autonomy’, counter-culture and alternative education, had also degenerated into an aesthetically uniform sub-culture harnessed to an extremist political discourse and with an exceptionally limited capacity to communicate with people outside its own ‘ghetto’. However, the limitations of the okupa movement were subject to widespread internal critical reflection, leading to a series of political experiments in Spain which took place broadly in the post-Genoa period. Some of these experiments, and the people involved, would go on to shape significant aspects of the politics of the PAH – as did a wider set of political developments occurring over recent decades from the Zapatistas of Chiapas to the transnational struggle for the freedom of movement.
We have already written about the development of the PAH as well as its immediate political and economic background. Here, we want to emphasise the huge impact that the PAH has had on radical politics and social movements in Spain and transplant some of the lessons learned. Our focus is obviously on Dublin, but there’s actually not that much available in English on the PAH so what follows might be of use more broadly.
1) Don’t mobilize, organize
In Dublin a lot of emphasis is put on mobilizing people – building demos or large movements involving masses of people. Consequently, a fair amount of thought goes into ‘getting the message out’ or communicating with the mass of society. This emphasis has not proved very useful and indeed has been very frustrating over the past number of years. This reflects a number of issues which we are probably all aware of but to which we don’t seem to give sufficient importance. Firstly, the possibility of effecting change through large demonstrations seems remote. Secondly, mass mobilizations are exhausting and consume resources on all fronts. Thirdly, and most importantly, our contemporary cities are characterised by high degrees of diversity, very-low degrees of ‘community’, weak or inexistent social/political ties among diverse sections of society, and the prevalence of individualised strategies for getting by. This is probably especially true outside of ‘traditional working class communities’. Although sometimes in history large scale popular mobilizations have occurred seemingly out of nowhere, this is the exception rather than the rule. We should think about mass mobilization as coming at the end of radical movements, rather than at the beginning – so to speak.
Moreover, mass mobilizations in the absence of smaller, more practical organisational forms that bring people together on a day-to-day basis will lack strong roots and will thus falter like a top-heavy tree. As Peter Linebough said when we spoke at our Struggles in Common event a while back, we need to be ‘thick on the ground’.
The PAH didn’t focus on ‘big bang’ spectaculars and making a lot of fuss. They focused on finding collective responses and solutions to the immediate needs of those involved, i.e. if I have a meeting with the bank manager tomorrow to discuss my mortgage payments how can we work together to make that meeting work out favourably for me? Are there other people involved from whom I can learn? If the group stages a protest outside the bank will that help? Perhaps as a group we are capable of lobbying the city council in a way that would not be possible if I was working as an individual. When these collective strategies started to have results that were better than individual strategies for surviving the crisis the PAH started to grow, as did the hope and enthusiasm of those involved. This also reminds us that small yet effective actions mean a sense of celebration when small victories are won (and these happen at least once a week). It helps keep everyone more upbeat by feeling that you are achieving something.
Later on, when a large network of local groups had emerged and were working together on an on-going basis, the PAH were able to mobilize large numbers of people.
This focus on collective forms of confronting the challenges we face has been called ‘social syndicalism’ – using the basic idea of trade unionism (cooperation to fight for improved conditions and achieve social rights) in areas of life beyond the workplace. It involves a very different set of skills than those traditionally used by activists. In particular, knowledge of existing rights and support services, contacts with public institutions (city council, social services etc.), legal expertise, facilitation, building trust, working with people who hold very different ideas, policy work, research etc.
2) From the barrio to the banks
Demonstrations outside the Dáil are a familiar, if sometimes depressing, aspect of Dublin life. It would be going too far to say there is never a time for protesting outside the parliament, but we need to rethink the fact that Kildare St. has become the default option when it comes to voicing dissent. The life blood of the PAH is work at the everyday level. They participate in protests in the city centre or outside government buildings, but they know that were they really need to be is in the barrio, the neighbourhoods were people are most affected by the housing crisis. It makes sense to do politics as close to people as possible and as integrated into their everyday life as possible. It is in their neighbourhoods were people feel most comfortable and were they can draw strength from existing social networks. People are also more interested in what’s happening in their neighbourhoods, feel closer to it, and a more likely to feel they can have an impact. It takes more courage to take a stand in your own neighbourhood, to reveal, for example, that you’re in mortgage difficulty, but it also has a much greater impact.
However, the PAH works out from this everyday level to identify and challenge the places of power. Where appropriate and useful, they target local government, financial regulators and the parliament, as well as various institutions that are failing to provide the services they are responsible for (such as emergency housing or food).
Often, banks and other financial institutions are the focus of protests, given that they have been at the centre of the housing crisis and its outworking and, moreover, are more sensitive to bad publicity than the government.
These protests and actions typically have concrete, specific and targeted demands. This is very different from protests at the Dáil which are often characterised by general, even abstract, demands, and risk reproducing the simulacrum of government inside the parliament.
3) Beyond left and right
One of the crucial and most tangible innovations pioneered by the PAH has been its novel, open and deeply moving use of language. This capacity is linked to the way in which it has managed to escape the traditional political ‘scene’ or frame, to position itself outside an outdated ‘left/right’ division that leaves people feeling cold and cynical, and thus to resonate very widely with people from all walks of life. In this sense, the PAH does not see itself as ‘left’ or ‘right’ but rather sees those terms as bound up with the political game played all too well by the right and left wing political parties who have been playing pass the parcel with Spain’s political institutions since the transition to ‘democracy’.
For many activists, the simple four-letter word ‘left’ is deeply meaningful, it recalls centuries of human struggle for emancipation and it is typically a term in which they are deeply invested. To use another word to describe themselves and what they are doing would therefore be very difficult for them. Nevertheless, these are not good grounds for using the word when we consider that for most people the term ‘left’ is associated with spineless social democratic parties, autistic Trotskyst parties or self-righteous activist types.
More importantly though, the present climate, dare we say the present state of class conflict, points towards the crisis of the representative political tradition with which the socialist left is ultimately bound up. It points towards a rejection of ‘politics’ and politicians as a privileged activity and class situated outside and above everyday life. And it points beyond the world of agendas, manoeuvring and tired ideological debates. The vibe on the streets is for something different, something fresh – something that might resemble a politics of the 99%.
The PAH has been able to articulate itself in these terms, to find a new way of talking about the business of working together to transform the conditions in which we live, a way that comes first of all from a place of humility, compassion, honesty and simplicity. This has been crucial to its ability to resonate so widely.
4) Use the media, but on your terms
We first heard about the PAH around 2010 while chatting to some friends in Madrid, some of whom were involved. It was the early days, long before the movement consolidated itself as a political force to be reckoned with. Nevertheless, they had been organising for some months and things were going well. One of the things that struck us was the maturity of their approach to the media. Given that property had been at the centre of the Spanish boom and bust, and given that there had been a massive wave of evictions, the mortgage crisis was a big news story. As soon as the initial PAH groups formed, they began receiving frequent requests from the media, eager to interview those at risk of eviction. What amazed me about their response was how patient they were. Their attitude was, ‘we’ll talk to the media when we’re ready’.
In Ireland, in our experience, we are very open to the media – even somewhat obsessed by it. We are often rushing to court the attention of the media, often without any clear sense of what we are trying to achieve. In the case of the PAH, the concern was that the media would portray those being evicted as pure victims, including a few minutes of ‘crisis pornography’ as part of their show before the ‘experts’ are wheeled out to explain why, sadly, there is no alternative. This depiction didn’t reflect how the PAH felt – they were not victims but were in fact taking control of their own lives and they did not rely on, or have any interest in, the perception of the world that ‘experts’ might have but instead were developing their own analysis and their own vision.
To communicate this in the media, to overcome the media’s tendency to personalize and victimize ‘ordinary people’, requires skill, confidence and a media strategy. If you manage to pull it off, the media can be a very effective space within which to challenge dominant discourse and communicate with large audiences. Until you’re in a position to do so, however, there’s no point in worrying about the media or wasting time trying to court its attention.
5) To change the world we have to change ourselves
The first thing that became clear to the PAH when they first began meeting was that many people felt guilty and responsible for the large levels of debt they had accumulated. These feelings, coupled with the stress of the situation, can lead to considerable and sometimes devastating mental health difficulties. They are a consequence both of the individualized nature of mortgage contracts and debt as a form of exploitation and of the media climate which suggested those in mortgage arrears had ‘partied too hard’, ‘not read the small print’, and ‘lived beyond their means’ (in a manner reminiscent of the current discussion of ‘strategic defaulters’ in Ireland).
Ada Colau, an activist and one of the spokespersons for the PAH, has argued that “In order to confront evictions the first thing we had to do was create and consolidate a space of trust, a place of encounter where those in danger of eviction could experience that…their problem was not individual but collective and that the causes were structural” and that “as a result we shouldn’t feel guilty or ashamed”.
Crucially, the PAH recognised the complex emotional, psychological and affective dimensions to the issue they were facing and also recognised the role of collective political action here. Politics, according to this approach, is not just about confronting the enemy, nor should it be confined to the realm of dramatic direct actions. Political action, as feminists have long demonstrated, must also be about working to transform how we experience ourselves and the world (i.e. working at the level of subjectivity). This is both because we need to work at that level to feel empowered and because the emotional, psychological and affective dimensions are crucial to sustaining situations of inequality.
What this suggests is that in order to bring about social change, we have to change ourselves. And, participating in collective political projects should help in this process. It should change how we relate to our problems so we no longer consider them as ‘our problems’, as things we are responsible for or as symptoms of our own failure or limitations. One of the joys of collective movements is that through them we realise that we are not alone and that many of the problems we face are not inevitable results of our own weakness, but in fact elements of social relations which are created by people and can, as such, be changed by people.
6) ‘Little big victories’ and the fine line between the possible and the impossible
To quote Ada Colau once more, developing the PAH meant developing the sense that “collective action can transform reality and make possible what seems impossible.” This relates to two paradoxical dimensions of politics. Politics is, at the same time, the ‘art of the possible’ and the ‘art of the impossible’. What do we mean by this?
To begin with, in our experience sometimes political groups begin with extremely ambitious objectives, often influenced by how the world should be rather than what can realistically be achieved. Often, the objectives are not achieved and the more we pursue them the clearer it becomes that they are unrealistic. This has gotten to the point where in some activist scenes the possibility of winning is not really taken seriously at all, and is seen almost as tangential to the business of activism.
And yet, we cannot fail to notice that people outside the activist world often respond to proposals of political action by asking ‘what will that achieve’. This is a pertinent question, and one that we should indeed be asking ourselves.
And yet, the activist tendency to ‘dream big’ also reflects some very important things. It reflects hope and imagination, possibly the two most important human capacities as far as politics goes (as Subcomondante Marcos has said, Don Quixote is the best manual for radical politics you can find). Moreover, they reflect the very special nature of politics as ‘the art of the impossible’, as the human capacity not just to act within a situation, but to change the nature of the situation, thus expanding the realm of the possible.
Bringing these two elements together, balancing the dimension of the ‘possible’ and the dimension of the ‘impossible’, is of course difficult, but it can be powerful. It is useful here to think about the concept of ‘little big victories’. As Colau says, achieving the first ‘little big victory’ was crucial for the PAH. It came from their successful attempt to block the eviction of Luis, a man who not only risked loosing his home but also risked loosing custody of his son if he became homeless.
For others in Luis’s situation, blocking an eviction would have seemed impossible. Experiencing the reality that you, armed only with the solidarity of others facing the same situation and supportive activists, could transform your situation, was in itself a deeply transformative experience. It is precisely change of this nature which tends to resonate very widely with people and grow movements.
What this boils down to in practice probably depends largely on the particularities of any given situation, but a rule of thumb might be to work towards collectively overcoming practical problems in the medium term, with a view to developing an expanded sense of what is possible through collective action.
There is no magic formula for politics, for the messy business of collectively responding to and transforming the world around us. The ‘six lessons’ set out here are not intended as a road-map, but rather as a provocation and a challenge to reflect on political practices and strategies. Moreover, what is presented here is very much our interpretation, based on our research and on discussions and reflections with activists in or close to the PAH.
Unfortunately, words on a page (or, more likely, a screen) are a poor medium for getting across how effective the PAH has been and how strongly and deeply its actions, campaigns and vision have resonated with people. Nevertheless, anyone familiar with the movement will appreciate how important it is to reflect and develop its innovations and successes and we hope we have given some sense of that here.