[translator’s note: Ruymán is a member of FAGC (Federación Anarquistas Gran Canaria or Gran Canaria’s Anarchist Federation), which centres most of its activity around the issues of housing, rent and homelessness. They are known for housing homeless people in squatted buildings run along anarchists’ principles without the members needing to share the same ideology. The biggest one so far, La Esperanza, houses more than 260 people, around 160 of them minors. More recently the FAGC has called for a rent strike to demand better conditions for renters during the COVID-19 crisis. The strike is supported today by more than 60.000 tenants. This is the second of a series of three articles written in 2015 where Ruymán explains how the FAGC sees the way forward for anarchism based on their experience these years]
“To-morrow for the young the poets exploding like bombs,
The walks by the lake, the weeks of perfect communion;
To-morrow the bicycle races
Through the suburbs on summer evenings. But to-day the struggle.”
(W.H. Auden, Spain, 1937).
Let’s start by pointing out that the person speaking to you about social struggle fancies himself an individualist. I am an individualist because I am wary of my independence and personal criteria, but also for pragmatic reasons. When you implicate yourself in the social struggle is necessary to retain a large dose of individualism: to not become corrupted, to avoid letting yourself be dragged by gregarious impulses and majoritarian urges, to know why you do the things you do.
But I am sickened by aristocratism; I am an individualist because I want, for every single person, a unique and strong personality, and let everyone develop their own “self” without environmental limits or impediments. But how to tame the environment so that it is individuals who shape it and not it that shapes the individuals? By implicating ourselves in the social struggle, there’s no other way.
Our contempt for the current society can lead us to resignation. Be it through a satisfied nihilism (“there’s nothing to be done and it’s better to vegetate and occasionally make an appearance on social media or a well written article”) or the castaway attitude (“even if we don’t like it this is our habitat, let’s adapt to it and save whichever furniture washes on the shore”). To ask for everything to burn without raising a finger or entangle yourself in electoral reforms or popular electoral reforms are examples of both attitudes. Resignation, more or less an active one, but resignation nevertheless.
To resign oneself is to surrender, and that is as if one is dead inside. We need to implicate ourselves in the social struggle because only then we’ll be able to change something, even if it’s only a part of the portion of the world we’ve been given by chance. But we have to implicate ourselves with a big dose of realism; so much realism it sometimes hurts.
We need to know that you can implicate yourself, succeed, change people’s lives and still not change anything on their minds. A petty person who is hungry is not different than one that is fed, except in their material capacity to hurt. They might have more or less possibilities, different priorities, but they are fundamentally the same. To idealize the “working class” (category that if it’s not limited to set the line between the oppressed and oppressors is of no use) is absurd. The male worker is not the character from the soviet posters nor is the female worker the one from the american WWII propaganda. The excluded and marginalized, the “class-less”, among whom I include myself by birth and calling, don’t fit the fixed romanticized vision of nomads and free spirits. We are beings of flesh and bone that cannot be observed from the outside, only lived from within.
To assign virtues and defects when they are not inherent is a source of injustices and frustrated expectations. Those of us who work for revolution need to have something clear: it won’t be done by nietzschean supermen; it will be done by people with prejudices, full of taboos, burdened by sexist, racist and xenophobic ideas. This is the human material of revolutions because people don’t change from one day to another no matter how much you try to change the circumstances. The initial enthusiasm mitigates these attitudes, but without a previous pedagogy we can’t expect people to throw away their emotional baggage instantaneously.
Are we sure that by changing material conditions we won’t be capable of changing subjective conditions? Not necessarily. Kropotkin is one of my favourite thinkers, and after studying him and trying to apply some of his proposals —those that seemed to me more urgently realistic— I can confirm that at least in some of the presuppositions of The Conquest of Bread¹ (1892) he was wrong. Or rather, to be fair with Kropotkin, the error is not on the main thesis of of this work (fundamental, otherwise), according to which the first question to solve during a revolution is that of bread; we are the ones who are wrong if we believe that just by being the first question must be the only one. The first question of the revolutionary phenomenon certainly has to be to satiate the basic necessities, but we would be naive to think that this fact alone will abolish all forms of hierarchy. If Tolstoy reminded us you cannot speak about non-edible things to someone with an empty stomach², we also can’t expect that by filling up that stomach we will obtain a behavioural change in that person. We can give shelter, roof and bread like Kropotkin recommends, but if the capitalist mental structure hasn’t been shaken, the improvement of the material conditions won’t have substantially changed the nature or the aspirations of the those affected. We can create a society of satisfied needs and economic equality, but that alone, without doing background work, won’t eradicate power and submission. Kropotkin used to say that if people had the means of production they wouldn’t have to kneel in front of someone like Rothschild; they may not grovel for bread, but they can still be made to submit by brute force, fear or deception. Economical equality doesn’t eradicate authoritarianism or hierarchical vices, nor does it swiftly erase capitalist tics.
This can be seen in the example of the communes and resistance communities. A microsociety that organises with an anarchist model, one in which this model proves itself efficient and effective, can be a showcasing of how anarchy works “too well”, because it’s capable of improving the conditions of the lives of those affected, of satiating their needs, but with very little effort required of them. You can’t create an oasis of anarchy surrounded by a desert of capitalism, because sooner or later the sand seeps through the door.
Most of the libertarian communities of the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th, and even more so the hippie communities of the second half of the last century, failed for a clear reason: they constituted themselves in closed communities, isolated, without realising that people don’t leave their “old mentality” at the entrance. This was already explained by Reclus in his text The Anarchist Colonies⁴ (1902). A society doesn’t have a life of its own independent from its members, although there is some kind of collective group psychology that makes it behave like a living organism. As such, it dies if it stays closed off and can’t breathe, and lives when it lets air come it, can breathe and nourishes itself from the outside.
This centrifugal and centripetal qualities I spoke of on the previous article are not only applicable to different kinds of anarchism, but also of communities and militancies. In my experience on communities I’ve been able to experience how the periods of forced isolation and endogamy encourage depression and immobility, but when you interact with the environment you are part of and receive stimuli from the outside the organism that is the community renovates and revitalizes itself. Same thing with militancy. The activity centred on your own group, which doesn’t open and expand itself nor wants to interact with the outside, is useless and engenders calcification. It’s essential to move towards the outside, to irradiate. The blood that doesn’t flow coagulates and causes gangrene; movement is the basis of life, the basis of change.
But I will be asked: why should we get involved in the social struggle if material change doesn’t have the intended immediate results? And even if it were desirable, what strategy to follow?
The great aspiration for revolutionary anarchism, and for most social movements, is to reach the people. It may be true that through the social struggle, by helping them and promoting ideas of self-management, their mentality won’t change. But that’s the only way of establishing contact with them. I understand the good intentions, but to a family searching for food in the trash, who is trying to separate the rotten from the decomposed, you cannot tell them about the virtues of veganism or the pernicious effects of transgenics; it sounds like an insult or a macabre joke. These things, which are really a display of your consciousness, are relevant when you have your basic needs satisfied and a stable status; the malnourished are only interested in not starving to death. When you speak of things detached from the immediate reality of people and try to drag them into our politics, instead of evaluating what can our worldview offer to them, we are establishing a line of separation between the people without ideology and the anarchist. Which mentally, is not that different between the one there is between the dispossessed and the proprietor: different interests if not directly opposed.
We have to analyse what legitimate interests people have that may intersect with our ideas and praxis and try to get involved. Back in 2011 the FAGC realized the alarming need of housing that there was in the Gran Canaria Island: between 25 and 30 evictions every day while there are 143,000 empty homes in the archipelago. The people needed a roof; so that’s what we had to offer to them, because ours ideas are perfect for it and because historically, from the Paris Commune to the squatters movement, it has been part of our tradition.
I’ve already said that the politics of bread, even if they are a priority, are not enough on their own. We need to use big doses of pedagogy (steering away from indoctrination and proselytism), socialize formative tools, strengthen people’s independence and create committed circles willing to defend their gains. Yes, bread is not everything, but it’s the only way for that formless and ineffable mental construct that we call “the people” to take you into consideration and be able to tell you apart from all the other snake-oil salesmen. Yes, the propaganda by the deed has limits, and showing the correct path and taking it is not enough to get others to do it themselves; but it’s the most honest and coherent way of spreading an idea and trying to get people to adopt it. The experiential way, of doing what you preach, is the only one that gives you the right to put a proposal in front of people. If you haven’t lived it before, don’t sell it to me. To give basic necessities the priority it deserves, and not to offer poetry, liturgy or scholastics to someone who is in need of protein is the only way to start being serious, the only way to not appear detached from reality.
Certainly the capitalist reflexes and the bourgeoisie tendencies can persist in the mind of the person who just stopped being destitute thanks to your help. LIberated from hardship maybe their consumerist mentality will be strengthened. But if they managed to change their living situation through libertarian means, with direct action tactics away from legality, the reality is that the example remains and survives; and that serves as evidence that even if the human material fails, the ideas and practices don’t. And anyway, if the seed of your example of mutual aid and autonomous organisation only germinates in one in every ten people, that’s enough for the social struggle you started to have been worth it.
Wilde speaks in his “The Soul of Man Under Socialism”⁵ (1890) about how boring the “virtuous poor” were. To demand for the poor to be virtuous, on top of being poor, is not a matter of being “boring”, but of brutal and unjust insensibility. In the social struggle you’ll discover people who haven’t had any contact with anyone for years, who have been excluded from basic comforts, who have been in a permanent state of war for decades, who feel that everything that surrounds them is hostile. We should not be surprised if they have difficulties trusting and even take advantage of the people lending them a hand; it would be more surprising if they didn’t jump to your jugular immediately. But instead, many people who have been treated like wild animals since they were kids, constantly harassed by their environment, become inspired by a solidarity given in exchange for nothing, except compromise, and by a way of acting that rejects any kind of leadership and servislism. They learn to help others, they open houses for homeless families just like they were opened for them. They realise the next step is to protect themselves autonomously; the illegality they were forced to use before now serves a deeper objective. Maybe they’ll become interested in the ideas that took them this far and they’ll start talking about anarchism. And if not, they no longer ignore the meaning of the word or fear it. Inside them a change of paradigm takes place.
Despite that, something should be made clear: the anarchist model we propose doesn’t need to convert people into anarchists to work; that would be abhorrent. Anarchism for the anarchists is chauvinism. Anarchism becomes useful when is directed towards those that aren’t and will never be anarchists. That is when a project or model proves it works.
Our objective is to reach those who have nothing, not to turn them into conscious anarchists, but because only them, those who suffer and struggle the most, have objective motivations to want to change their life and reasons to obsessively tear down everything. The anarchist message of freedom and autonomy is for all of humanity; the one about three meals per day and a roof over your head can only be for those who lack that. The anarchy for the satiated, for the intellectually bored, is an useless artefact. The libertarian principles can be taken by everyone, they can change the inner life of anyone who consumes them no matter their ascendency. But its economic and social program is directed towards changing the life of those who today have to eat mud. That’s why it is important to intervene in that fight; there’s no other way to change what is around us.
How to do it? From the inside, without paternalism or impositions. The “parachute” tactic that jumps into a conflict, coming from the outside, will lead to failure. You only have the right to intervene when you have been seen to get your hands dirty, sweat and bleed; and not even that will dispel all suspicions. We need to create a project in which the difference between the anarchists who initiated it and the people with generally no ideology who join it gets blurred over time, without ranks, vanguardism or primacies.
By taking interest in the real worries of the people, the ones that come from them, and not the ones you want to introduce them to from the outside. Once we have taken part in their interests, their fight, their demands, our mission as anarchists is to take them a bit further, a step beyond. Malatesta understood this clearly:
“Let us make everyone who dies of hunger and cold understand that every product that stokes the warehouses belongs to them, because they are the ones who produce everything, and let’s encourage and help them to take it all. Whenever there’s a spontaneous rebellion, as has sometimes happened, let’s hurry to mingle in in it and to try to turn it into a coherent movement by exposing ourselves to the danger and fighting together with the people. Later, through practice, ideas emerge and opportunities present themselves. Let us organise, for example, a movement to not pay the rent; let’s persuade the field workers to take crops back to their houses and, if we can, let’s help them carry it and to fight against the owners and guards who don’t want to allow it. Let us organise movements to force the municipalities to do everything big and small that the people desire, like for example to lift the taxes for essential goods. Let us remain always among the popular masses and let’s make them accustomed to take by themselves those liberties that could never be gained by legal means. To summarize: everyone should do whatever they can according to the place where they are and the environment around them, taking as a starting point the practical desires of the people, and always inspiring new desires”⁶
What the FAGC tried to do with the “Group of Immediate Response against Evictions” and the “Renters and Evicted Union” was to intervene in a real aspiration of the population (housing) while staying away from the moderate and legalist proposals from the local platforms and collectives, to bring the fight for a place to live to new presuppositions, deeper and more radical. This is the first phase of our fight. By stopping evictions in a combative way and rehousing people without a home in individual houses expropriated from the banks, we started the contact with the people and demonstrated that things could be done in a different way, one that is more committed and efficient.
While embroiled in the popular aspirations for housing we started the phase of the “La Esperanza” Community, because we needed to make a show of force with a project big and showy enough that it couldn’t be hidden from public opinion no matter how hard anyone tried. Rejecting the victimism of thinking that no matter what we do we’ll be silenced, we’ve tried to show that regardless of the manipulations and misrepresentations of the media, if you do something of enough magnitude it is impossible to shut it down and sweep it under the rug (to this we must obviously add a great capacity to work and know how to design a good “media war”). After that comes a third phase that I’ll explain in the last article of this series.
What was done in this second phase has is importance and meaning, not only for its obvious social dimension of giving a roof to such a huge number of adults and minors, but also in other aspects. In our movement it seems like some think tanks squabble over a ridiculous hegemony. They invalidate what the competitor says with words, always with words. If a proposal looks to them to be too radical or too reformist they don’t try to oppose it by comparing it with a practical example that proves it wrong, they oppose it with another idea. When they criticised the legal reform proposed by the PAH (Platform of People Affected by Mortgages) to regulate housing in Madrid for being too useless and legalistic, that criticism may have been correct (in fact it was), but if you don’t present an alternative the people will have no option but to go with the only alternative that is in front of them. We criticised the legal reform and as evidence to back our criticism we created, for example, the “La Esperanza”. What we need is an action tank, action groups that take actions to validate our theories, an activist backing with real and quantifiable results. That is what validates your proposal; everything else is rhetoric, verbiage and paper, and that has the same weight as banging your fist on the table at a pub.
But we have to be realistic: if the division in the lived experience between the anarchists and the rehoused must be erased (as this is the only way of not only avoiding vanguardism but also of promoting self-emancipation and engaging those affected to the fight for their own cause), we have to be able to detect differences and similarities between our aspirations; there lies the limits of the social struggle. Personally, as an anarchist, and in relation to the “La Esperanza” Community, I could prefer an occupation sine die, a constant challenge against the state and the financial institutions, surviving in a constant emergency situation. But precisely as an anarchist I don’t like declaring a war on behalf of someone else. I cannot throw people, with kids of their own, to fight against windmills spurred on by my ideas. I must know and understand what are their real aspirations and how far they are willing to go. And if they’ve already gone as far as they can, I can’t force them to engage in ways of struggle that haven’t yet develop within them. The necessity creates the means, and those ways will develop naturally when it is the right moment. I need to understand that if for me illegality is an option and a resource to defend, for them it is an obligation born out of necessity. After the war people want peace and we can’t criticise them for that. With that in mind I redact legal documents that disgust me because the community I’m part of needs them and trusts me to give them substance. “La Esperanza” has decided to regularize their situation, going in with everything: if it goes wrong, it’ll continue existing outside of the law and won’t abandon the apartments; if it goes well it will have successfully challenged the system and forced it to give in to their demands.
Will achieving those demands be the end of everything? As a community, maybe yes, but as part of the global strategy of the FAGC obviously no. Achieving this victory will be an example of what can be accomplished through squatting, by making the banks and the political powers submit to a policy based on proven facts. It must and can be reproduced in other places. But if we don’t give this strategy a final twist, its practical result, if it were to be successful and go viral, would be to increase the number of council homes in the State and grow the public housing sector. And that’s not our objective. Our objective is to give a roof to the families, but under a completely different social paradigm.
When you intervene in workers union organising and try to achieve an improvement of working hours or salaries, what we achieve if we win is a partial victory and a show of strength. What matters is getting that practical experience, building the muscle. But if we limit ourselves to reduce the hours or increase the salaries, we will only be reinforcing the capitalist model of work. If we decide we have other aspirations, we’ll have to prove it with something more than declaring your intentions. It’s the same thing with housing. The idea is for no one to die in the street, that’s the priority; but understanding that what causes that to happen is the current model, and therefore we shouldn’t just treat the symptoms but also cure the disease. By giving a roof and stopping the reshoused person from being evicted from their home, we show strength and respond to an atrocity by tackling it directly; but if behind that there is not a third movement, that demonstration will go no further. It’ll remain as an end in itself.
The struggle is not something automatic (struggling for its own sake). You struggle to destroy barriers and reach objectives. When do you know if the struggle is important? When you’ve reached that objective and yet you have the feeling you are just getting started.
Make way then for the third movement! ■
Read Part One:- “Two Anarchisms“
¹ Digital edition on the Anarchist Library: https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/petr-kropotkin-the-conquest-of-bread
² “Before we give the people priests, soldiers, judges, doctors and teachers, we should ascertain if they happen to be dying of hunger” (The Triumph of the Farmer or Industry and Parasitism, 1888)
³ Although truth be told, unless there is a difficult global revolution, any form of anarchy will alway initially occur surrounded by capitalism, be it at a small two, a big city or a whole region. It changes the resources, the competencies and the scale, but its imperfection is a manifestation of anarchy. That’s why I can maybe say to have lived in anarchy, and that is beautiful and hard
⁴ Digital edition on libcom: https://libcom.org/library/anarchist-colonies-elis%C3%A9e-reclus
⁵ digital edition on project gutemberg: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/1017
⁶ In Times of Elections, 1890