This is the fourth and final post in our series on The Abduction of Europe meeting that we attended in Madrid a couple of weeks ago. In the first three posts we addressed some of the more general themes and questions raised by the organizers and in the workshops on Europe, financialization and the commons. Here we describe some of the experiences of right to housing and healthcare struggles in Spain and Germany. We had heard about some of these movements before but it was inspiring and edifying to talk to the people involved about their experiences of organizing within and against the crisis. These movements did not begin with pre-existing programs for society. They began by intervening in concrete situations where people were being excluded from housing or healthcare.
As we said in the last post, the financial crisis is experienced by most people today as a crisis of social reproduction – a constant struggle to find work, pay bills and get by. The combination of the withdrawal of public services and welfare payments; the erosion of secure work contracts and employment benefits; and the growing indebtedness of individuals, have not only meant growing social inequality and suffering, they have also produced a particular subjectivity. This subjectivity is characterized by an ever-present worry and anxiety about the future that we as individuals are powerless to challenge or confront. Debt is the most obvious vehicle for this, not only binding individuals into a form of financial slavery but also burdening them with feelings of personal guilt and responsibility. The generalized privatization of social life has not only corroded previous forms of collectivity and solidarity, it has isolated individuals in ever more effective ways, making it very hard to create new forms of collective action. To break out of the individualized, precarious subjectivity we inhabit everyday requires new ways of being and doing together, a social and material process. As Silvia Federici writes, “the general idea of building a Commons is building a collective subject; building a common interest, and first and foremost, undermining the ways in which we’ve been divided. So, it’s not creating new rules of exclusion but finding ways in which we can begin to tear down the fences, not only the material fences but also the social fences.”
When we were in Madrid we talked a lot about this problem and the need to find ways of disrupting the isolation and fear that have been bred by the crisis. Ada Colau, the charismatic spokesperson for the Platform for those Affected by Mortgages, described how immediately after the financial crisis those who were most affected by mortgages only existed in the narratives of the media and the politicians. These narratives represented those in debt as irresponsible borrowers who now had to accept the consequences of their actions, even if this meant eviction from their homes and the continuing burden of over-inflated mortgage repayments. Nor was this just a question of representation. When activists from the tenants associations held demonstrations in support of those saddled with huge mortgage debt they found that not many of those who were actually affected came onto the streets. Where were the people who were feeling the sharpest point of the debt crisis? Where was their anger and rage? These were questions that Ada Colau and other activists were asking when the 15-M movement broke out. With the taking of the squares, social barriers and fear were disrupted for a time as people came together and developed new forms of social and political action. While the PAH had been working effectively for some years on the housing and debt problem in Spain, 15-M was important for bringing more people into contact with their organization. As more people came to their meetings and new groups were established in different towns and cities across Spain a familiar story began to be told. Luisa, an activist who had been involved with PAH from the beginning, told us how it nearly everyone who came to the meetings looking for help began with the same line: ‘My situation is unique…’ only to find that hundreds and thousands of other people were going through the same traumatic experience.
Every person we spoke to in Madrid involved with the PAH spoke of these first crucial steps in breaking the individualized dynamic of guilt and depression created by debt and the narratives surrounding it. This was not simply broken by offering a counter-narrative in the media, a ‘correct analysis’ of what had happened. It involved concretely bringing people together to talk about their situation. To begin with this required a space that was open and non-judgmental, where people felt comfortable talking about their experiences. However, people who came to the meetings were also looking for help. The first thing that the PAH could offer was information. The complexity of the legal and financial situation was such that it was one of the primary ways people felt alienated and vulnerable. The activists involved in the PAH were not of course, at least initially, sophisticated in these areas either. It was a slow, laborious process of collective, self-education that has allowed them to fight many individual cases through the courts and the institutions of the state. As well as providing information, the PAH responded to the immediate concerns of people who came to the meetings, namely the anxiety they felt going to the banks to discuss their situation with bank managers. Simply being in that situation with a group of people behind you, especially with those who may have experienced the same thing, or know something about what is going on, not only makes someone feel individually stronger but also disrupts the everyday power relations through which debt is enforced.
A similar process has been taking place with Yo Sí Sanidad Universal, the movement in Spain for universal health care. The background was the successful and popular struggle against the privatization of the health care system in 2013. The so-called ‘Marea Blanca’ protests, or ‘white tide’, was made up of medical professionals and patients, forming a new kind of common front to defend a public good. A year before this, in April, 2012, the government had already decided to restrict universal health care access. Free health care was no longer available to undocumented migrants and people who had been without work for a certain period. While support, especially in Madrid, had been strong to resist the privatization of the public health system, support for the idea of universal health care was not so strong. In response, Yo Sí Sanidad Universal formed neighborhood groups for those people who are uninsured and thus unable to access the public hospitals. One of the principal tactics they employ is accompanying individuals to primary health care centers in groups in order to negotiate with the clinics to ensure that all patients receive treatment. Because this process takes place at a neighborhood level, the groups are able to get to know the healthcare professionals in the clinics, working with them to directly disrupt the exclusionary boundaries that have been created by the state. As well as ensuring that individuals are able to get the healthcare they need, ongoing negotiations with the clinics have also changed the relations between doctors and patients, producing a new form of health commons from below akin to what is happening in the solidarity clinics in Greece.
The value of organizing at the neighborhood level was also illustrated by the work of Kotti & Co., a tenants-initiative based in Berlin resisting the displacement of low-income migrants and families on welfare. In May, 2012, they organized a summer Fest in the middle of a square surrounded by social housing in Kreuzberg (Kotti). This developed from a camp into a self-built house that now serves as a social centre. Once again, this space has managed to bring together those living in the immediate housing blocks with housing and right to the city activists from across the city. Tenants’ grievances are shared and common problems identified, producing in the process shared knowledge about housing issues, local government, tenants rights and so on. The main aim is to cap rents so as to allow existing tenants to stay on in their homes. From this shared aim specific tactics and strategies can be worked out and experimented with. These have included noise-demonstrations, public conferences and publications, as well as efforts to organize self-reduced rents. As with the two examples above, these interventions are not just plucked out of thin air. They emerge over time, after shared experience and reflection and through collective decision-making with the people who are most directly affected by the situation. For example, the self-reduction of rents can place tenants in a vulnerable situation vis-a-vis the landlord. In order to get around this they are proposing to withhold rent on the basis that communal areas in the buildings are not being kept up to standard by the landlord, thereby utilizing a legal loop-hole to avoid the possible sanctions that could come with a direct self-reduction of rents. While the long term goals and demands of Kotti & Co. are the re-communalization and self-administration of social housing, the campaign moves with small steps, intervening in concrete situations, developing trust, winning small victories, building confidence. Through this process they have also managed to create new coalitions with groups working across the city, and even Europe, working under the general banner of the right to the city.
These three movements are, to different degrees, generating new forms of collectivity, solidarity and, ultimately, subjectivity – a new way of feeling, thinking and acting. Collectively asking questions, collectively producing analysis, collectively acting together. Each step builds on the one before, always striving to move forward without knowing, or needing to know, the final destination. Ada Colau admitted she could never have imagined that the PAH would have expanded to include 200 organizations across Spain with the power and social legitimacy to have stopped over 1000 evictions and to have occupied entire apartment blocks.
Valery Alzaga, one of the organizers of the Justice for Janitors campaign in the 1990s, said that if a collective cannot find ways to respond to the obstacles it comes up against then it begins to die. At the same time, every time the collective is able to intervene at the level of everyday reality, generating actions that transform the situation for the people involved, then it builds ‘flesh’, as she put it. As the movement builds flesh it draws others into its orbit, creating new coalitions and bases of support. This form of movement does not correspond to an ideological position or line but unfolds as people collectively struggle against everyday forms of injustice and exclusion. The Uruguayan sociologist Raul Zibechi compares this movement to the dance of a spinning top. The centripetal force of the top means it rotates on its own axis but this momentum moves it forward across a surface, weaving and wandering as it goes. In the case of the grassroots struggles around housing and healthcare, they are producing their own momentum through new social relations, forms of solidarity and ways of intervening to change their everyday situations. Perhaps the clearest evidence of what this means was embodied in Ada Colau herself. She spoke with a confidence and certainty that defied the fear and insecurity felt by so many. This confidence was not simply hers but the confidence and experience of the PAH: she communicated the conviction and solidarity of many, many people who felt and fought as she did, who held the same rare but tangible belief that something could change and they would be the ones who did it.