This book has been possible thanks to the direct or indirect contribution of a great variety of people who desire and experiment with collaborative and egalitarian—and, sometimes, non-capitalist and non-patriarchal—ways of life. You will find many of them quoted in the following pages. But a lot of them don’t usually write or at least don’t publish articles or books. I want to express my gratitude to them. I hope that they may find this book interesting, despite all its shortcomings, and that they find it a good tool to resist the excess of cultural authority that is usually granted on those of us who do write. I would like to thank particularly the people from the political collectives in which I have worked and learned in the last years: Democracia Real Ya NY, the General Assembly of NYC, Occupy Wall Street’s Empowerment and Education working group, Making Worlds, 16 Beaver, Marea Granate NY, Círculo Podemos EEUU, and the NYC to Spain delegation. I thank my friends and colleagues in the universities where I studied and worked. I thank my dear friends and ‘compas’ in Madrid, New York and everywhere else. I could have never survived without your love. And I deeply and lovingly thank my sister, Ana Moreno, my parents, Merche Caballud and Ramiro Moreno, my partner Begonia Santa-Cecilia, and our son, Max Santa-Cecilia.
The Spanish state, 2008–May 2015: unemployment rates approach 25%, and 50% among young people. Eight million living in poverty, according to official figures. The second highest rate of childhood malnutrition in Europe. The highest rise in economic inequality of all states in the OECD. Some 3 million empty homes and about 184 families evicted from their homes every day.
Despite changes in the governing party, the public policies that have attempted to address this situation have not changed since the beginning of what has come to be called the ‘economic crisis:’ obedience to the ‘experts’ of the Troika (the International Monetary Fund, the European Commission, the European Central Bank), bailouts of financial entities, prioritizing payment of the public debt over social spending, and cuts to basic public services like health, education, and disability benefits.
Regardless of whether or not these policies work, what my research seeks to emphasize is that such measures are not only executed by political authorities, but are also normalized by a certain form of cultural authority: the authority of the ‘experts.’ This authority is based on a long, complex tradition in every society that tends to establish a group of people ‘in the know,’ and another group ‘in the dark.’ In its most flexible manifestation, this tradition allows for those ‘in the dark’ to be able to move up to the group ‘in the know,’ if they fulfill an entire series of pedagogical prerequisites supervised by the latter group. But in any case, the decisions about important things, like the social organization of housing, work, food, health, and education, will be made made on the basis of the specialized technical opinion of those ‘in the know’ at any given moment.
Given this cultural tradition, those who implement political measures enabling situations as difficult for the majority of a population as those currently experienced in Spain can justify their policies based on the technical knowledge of the ‘experts’ who recommend them. There are also, of course, others who oppose them by putting forward the authority of their own ‘experts,’ who—based on their respective technical knowledge—recommend very different policies. In the midst of this confrontation between differing groups of ‘those in the know,’ those who are supposedly ‘in the dark’ are sometimes called upon to offer an opinion—primarily through the election of political parties every four years. But again, according to this cultural tradition, the opinion of ‘just anyone’—of someone who does not belong to the group of ‘those in the know’—can never be equal to that of those who bear the titles of established knowledge. In the capitalist version of this tradition, those ‘in the know’ guarantee a way of life for everyone else which, in addition to voting, they can use money as a measure of all social value and channel their individual desires by consuming and competing among themselves.
In recent years, however, something important has happened in the Spanish state. The economic disaster has generated such a huge drop in the credibility of political institutions that it has begun to affect this hierarchical cultural system, thus compromising the very authority of those ‘in the know.’ This has driven many people ‘in the dark’ to trust in their own abilities to collaboratively construct the knowledge they need in any given situation and to generate effective answers to the problems that confront them. In the process, they avoid having to weigh down their ways of knowing with the monopolistic, exclusive, hierarchical ambitions that accompany the tradition of the ‘experts.’
This book studies some signs that seem to point towards a crisis of that tradition, along with others that announce the emergence of something I call ‘cultures of anyone.’ These cultures do not suggest a rejection of specialized fields of knowledge, but rather a rejection of the uses of such knowledge to monopolize cultural authority. They avoid creating divisions between those ‘in the know’ and those ‘in the dark,’ asserting that we all know something, nobody knows everything, and our abilities are developed better when we learn together than when we live in hierarchical relationships.
These ‘cultures of anyone’ have arisen mostly around grassroots social movements and in collaborative spaces fostered by digital technology, but they are spreading to many other social milieus, including those traditionally reserved for institutional ‘culture’ and ‘politics.’ They tend to promote the idea that the people affected by or involved in a situation should be the ones to participate in changing it, but not from a perspective of ‘anything goes.’ Rather, they promote processes of empowerment and collaborative learning that allow the development of anyone’s abilities and knowledge base. The ‘cultures of anyone’ create ‘collective intelligence.’ They believe that what ‘goes,’ what works, what’s worth doing, is better elucidated when everyone’s diverse abilities are combined, as opposed to when the knowledge monopolies of a select few are imposed.
They are, in short, ‘cultures of anyone’ because within them it is understood that culture, the constant collective discussion—be it explicit or implicit—in which decisions are made about what has value, what constitutes a ‘decent life,’ is something that anyone should be able to participate in. From the point of view of this emergent culture, it is inexcusable that anyone should be excluded from the construction of the meaning of her or his dignity. For this reason, I propose to define ‘cultures of anyone’ as forms of cultural democratization—not so much in terms of allowing access to a body of already established knowledge and values (as understood in the habitual sense of the phrase), but in the sense of opening the construction of knowledge and of values to participation by anyone.
April 26, 2014, Madrid, Malasaña district: seven women—one pregnant—and eight children—the sons and daughters of those women—entered an apartment building that had been empty for 17 years, with the intention of making it their home. These women were neither in hiding nor alone. Signs are unfurled from the windows reading ‘Together we can,’ and ‘Safe housing for everyone.’ Down in the street, they are supported by a group of people, one of whom has a megaphone she uses to announce:
We are a group of women fighting for the well-being of our children, who are in this situation right along with us. We are tired of being invisible to the public powers, we condemn the lack of recognition of the kind of work we do: domestic work and caring for our families. … Being able to pamper our kids and raising them in the security of a home is not a luxury, it is our right.
The right to raise a child in a good home seems, in principle, eminently reasonable according to that ever-vague amalgam called ‘common sense.’ It is much less ‘commonsensical,’ at least in societies strongly based on a capitalist economy, to think that this right makes it okay for you to enter someone else’s property to set up house and raise your children there. But these women have concluded that, given their uncertain situation and the way the public powers and their experts have interpreted the ‘right to a good home’ as guaranteed by the Spanish Constitution, it is legitimate to accord priority to their dignity and the dignity of their children over the validity of a deed of property.
This decision—and this is what I want to emphasize—was not made individually, but in the bosom of a social movement that is open to anyone and which collects and cultivates diverse abilities and ways of knowing—such as solidarity, legal knowledge, public policy analysis, diffusion, etc.—to collectively confront housing problems.
So, these women are among the 1,180 homeless or evicted individuals who have already ‘recuperated’ at least 20 empty buildings through the ‘Social Work’ campaign of the People Affected by the Mortgage Platform (Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca, or PAH). It would be difficult to dispute that the PAH is one of the institutions most recognized for its legitimacy in Spanish society today, thanks to its work of mutual support during the ‘housing emergency’ currently taking place in Spain. Its legitimacy has not been gained through the authority of ‘experts,’ but earned through the democratic processes of a ‘culture of anyone.’
Furthermore, it would be disingenuous to claim that this legitimacy was generated illegally or ‘behind the backs’ of the powers that be. The change of priorities proposed by the PAH has already begun to be translated into laws and precedents. Institutions like the Strasbourg Human Rights Commission have supported its rejection of evictions, and several judges have conceded ‘non-recourse debt’ (e.g., accepting the deed to a home as payment in full, instead of foreclosing) and even ‘social rents’ proposed by the PAH. In any case, all of the Platform’s activities have always been supported by Article 47 of the Constitution: ‘every person has the right to a decent home.’
Laws are never unambiguous; they are designed to be interpreted. The same is true, although with greater flexibility, of legitimacy and ‘common sense.’ Both spheres, legality and legitimacy, depend on the cultural process through which the meanings and values of reality are constantly debated, whether tacitly or explicitly. Thus the ‘culture of anyone,’ the type of democratization of knowledge bases and value production cultivated by initiatives like those of the PAH, is liable to have crucial consequences in all areas of social life.
This book studies the tensions between historically established—although at times foundering—forms of cultural authority, and those ‘cultures of anyone’ that have reappeared time and again during Spain’s ‘economic crisis.’ Regarding the former, the first part of the book proposes two interconnected genealogies. On one hand, the cultural authority prevailing at the onset of the ‘economic crisis’ partakes of the long ‘modern’ technocratic tradition (de Certeau 2010) that grants legitimacy in meaning production only to those who participate in certain disciplines and institutions (what Bauman calls ‘the modern power/knowledge complex’ (1987)), and only if they access it by acknowledging their inferiority to and dependence on those who already hold it (according to the hierarchical functioning of what Rancière called ‘the pedagogical society’ (2003)).
On the other hand, over the course of Spain’s parliamentary monarchy (1978 to present), a new layer of particularly powerful disciplines and institutions has been deposited over this long tradition of cultural authoritarianism. These disciplines and institutions are extremely flexible devices, capable of invading daily life, imposing a way of producing meaning, or a ‘way of the world,’ as Dardot and Laval say, that essentially consists of generalized competition and turning life into a business (2014; see also Garcés Mascareñas 2013). This ‘way of the world’—neoliberalism—is enshrined in the traditional ambitions of certain ‘educated’ elites to monopolize the production of meaning. These are the ones who have endorsed neoliberalism as ‘the best possible system’ so consistently that the general public has accepted it as inevitable even if they weren’t quite ready to wholeheartedly embrace it.
This last becomes most obvious at times when a large part of that public begins to question the efficacy of neoliberal logic, because they are suffering economic insecurity and social inequality generated by its competitive principle. It is then, as we see every day, that those who hold political and cultural power brandish appeals to ‘normality’ and ‘modernity,’ to equality with ‘more advanced countries,’ and to the recommendations of ‘experts,’ to reinforce the discredited neoliberal ‘way of the world.’
In the second part of the book, I study some emerging cultural logics that interrupt, to a certain degree, both the hierarchical, monopolistic authority of ‘those in the know’ and the neoliberal ‘way of the world.’ They do this by promoting ways of collaborating that tend to create favorable conditions for anyone’s empowerment and the development of anyone’s abilities. I suggest that these ways of collaborating have, so far, been much more able to offer meanings, languages, symbols, and sociability than to insure food, housing, and care. But I also believe that the former elements are just as necessary for human life as the latter. With support from feminist theories of social reproduction (such as those of Antonella Picchio (2009), Silvia Federici (2010), and Amaia Orozco (2014)), I show that in the constant collective process through which human life—always constituted by interdependent individuals—is sustained, it is also decided, tacitly or explicitly, what constitutes a life with dignity. For that decision, ‘culture’—meaning, languages, symbols, sociability—is indispensable. In this sense, ‘culture’ plays an important part in maintaining human life, and being able to maintain a nonhierarchical, noncompetitive culture is a way of sustaining lives with a certain amount of autonomy—cultural autonomy—with respect to neoliberal reason.
I analyze the aspects of that ‘cultural autonomy’ relative to knowledge monopolies and the competitive mechanisms of neoliberalism by studying digital cultures, social movements emerging in the cycle opened by the 15M (or Indignados), and some examples of cultural institutions, both public and self-managed. Thus I propose a route that begins with the massive expansion of the ability to create cultural value collectively through information technologies and communication (about which Margarita Padilla (2013), Mayo Fuster Morell (2012), Manuel Castells (2009), and many others have written at length). At the same time, it suggests the constant difficulty for communities to self-manage the value they produce, because of the multiplicity of appropriation and precarization mechanisms at the disposal of more powerful agents in the game of widespread neoliberal competition (Harvey 2013; Harney 2010b; Rowan 2010).
I continue with an analysis of the 15M movement and other similar ones, like the Mareas (the Tides) and the PAH, which develop protocols for collaboration and the composition of diverse knowledge bases and abilities in closed physical environments, as Amador Fernández-Savater, one of the most interesting observers of these movements, has made clear (2008; 2011a; 2013). With these protocols they manage to provide support mechanisms for the bodies that participate in them. Based on the model of the 15M encampments as spaces where participants attempted to sustain a life completely devoid of competitiveness and open to anyone, I note the difficulties inherent in maintaining this type of experience, betting so heavily on the transformation of daily life, as well as its clashes with ‘cultural authorities.’
Finally, I examine the existence of self-managed cultural institutions, like those participating in Fundación de los Comunes (the Commons Foundation Network), and public ones, like Medialab-Prado in Madrid, which have a certain ability to ‘decommodify’ the cultural life of those who participate in them. I also note the limits in each case. I analyze the difficulties, caused by the strong commodification of the public culture sector, in creating stable cultural institutions that can function democratically and that the population might be inclined to defend as much as schools and public hospitals. And, lastly, I discuss the added difficulties that the necessarily experimental aspect of the cultural sphere presupposes for those possibilities of institutionalization.
This book does not attempt to be ‘above’ or ‘beyond’ the immense cultural problem it seeks to theorize through the disjunction between a ‘culture of experts’ and a ‘culture of anyone.’ On the contrary, it is an investigation of that problem which attempts to inscribe itself within the democratizing logics of the very ‘cultures of anyone’ that it studies, as well as contributing something that could be useful for them.
Therefore, I want to clarify that I think the ‘cultures of anyone’ I am writing about are the most appropriate ones to study themselves and their context. My contribution attempts to respect this fact by bringing together numerous voices that emerge from them, and by recognizing that my own voice exists here due to that ‘collective intelligence.’ I attempt to show my indebtedness to these cultures explicitly through quotes, the frequency of which serves to belie the fiction of a strong authorial function. Such a dominant authorial voice would tend to obscure the collective sources of its knowledge in an effort to individually capitalize on their value. In any case, some of the lines of inquiry with which I dialogue will become more explicit in the rather more detailed summary of my argument, outlined chapter by chapter, that I offer to the reader below.
In chapter one I first present some distinctive characteristics of the forms of cultural authority prevailing in a Spain in crisis, and then I begin to trace key lines of their genealogy. Starting with the ways in which big communications media, experts, politicians and intellectuals have presented the crisis, I discuss their capacity to ‘establish a reality’ (as Michel de Certeau says) that tends to imagine society as a collection of individuals competing among themselves for a market of diverse goods and possibilities. I note that this competitive, individualistic way of life, which constitutes the heart of neoliberalism (according to Laval and Dardot), has suffered a certain decline. Likewise, those agencies of cultural authority that ‘establish’ this way of life have seen their credibility suffer due to the economic collapse.
I trace the genealogy of the cultural model in crisis by starting from the structural division between the people responsible for sustaining life and the people responsible for managing the production of meaning. The anthropologist Paul Radin observed this division in precapitalist societies, but the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman also considers it a defining characteristic of modernity. The ‘modern power/knowledge complex’ is defined, according to Bauman, by the particularly virulent practice of monopolizing the production of meaning. During the Enlightenment, this led to the establishment of the ‘garden societies’ model through which the elites attempted not only to dominate everyone else, but to transform those other lives and cultures to be ‘productive.’ In other words, the elites tried to make the rest of the population adapt to the capitalist mode of production and distribution of value.
In accord with the historians Sánchez León (2010) and Jesús Izquierdo (2002), I argue that the widespread implantation of this capitalist way of life occurred during the second phase of Francoism, enshrined through the technoscientific legitimacy of certain expert elites who claimed to be ‘modernizing’ the country. To achieve this, the rural peasant culture(s) of some two-thirds of the population had to be discredited, which generated a whole series of significant collective inferiority complexes. But in addition, during that transformation, the foundations were laid for Spain’s future participation in the European neoliberal economic model, as explained by the Observatorio Metropolitano de Madrid (López Hernández and Rodríguez López 2010). This participation was legitimized by the heirs to a long tradition of ‘modernizing, pro-European’ intellectual elites, who considered incorporation into neoliberal Europe the only possible path to democratic ‘normalization.’
The second chapter comprises a more detailed analysis of the ‘standardizing’ operation carried out by the cultural authorities of the so-called ‘Cultura de la Transición’ or ‘CT’ (Transition Culture). It begins with a reminder of the well-known arguments regarding the exceptional nature of the situation experienced by everyone at the end of the dictatorship, and how this served as a justification for some less than democratic (opaque, nonrepresentative, elitist) ways of ushering in ‘democracy.’ I relate those well-known arguments to the added authority the political elites of the transition gained through their proximity to the cultural elites. I propose that not only is it true, as Guillem Martínez (creator of the idea of a ‘Culture of Transition’ (2012)) claimed, that the cultural world would deactivate its critical capacity, but also that a majority of its members opted for a depoliticized, individualist conception of aesthetic modernity, which I analyze drawing on Reinaldo Laddaga’s work (2006).
Unlike in other cultural environments that were surely also ‘modern’ (such as the transitional underground culture studied by Germán Labrador (2008)), the official culture of post-dictatorial Spain would view aesthetic style as something separate from politics, reinforcing through that supposed neutrality the political value of a neoliberal status quo that was always presented as the ‘only path to modernity.’ The journalistic columnism of progressive intellectuals would turn out to be essential in this regard for consolidating a model of individual cultural authority based on the supposed apolitical exceptionality of the ‘creator,’ who has broken away from the communities from which he receives the cultural materials for his production. As a result, he is at constant risk of being manipulated in one way or another by the speculative mechanisms of neoliberalism.
The risk of manipulation becomes even more acute as widespread commodification increasingly spectacularizes the world of culture, transforming it into a ‘brand’ ready to be consumed. This ‘culture brand’ or ‘culture bubble’ model coexists with the intellectual’s ambitions to constitute an independent, critical authority confronting the established powers. However, I argue that as long as he continues to be tacitly perceived as part of the elite that must lead everyone else to ‘modernity,’ the intellectual still participates in a structural inequality that turns him into an indirect guarantor of the very social order he criticizes.
The third chapter is a brief incursion into two possible counter-figures of the ‘intellectual,’ or simply, of the ‘cultural agent.’ These are characterized precisely by having maintained a fertile and generous dialogue with the communities of meaning production that have inspired and nourished their work. While I focus my argument primarily on writer Luis Mateo Díez’s relationship with the peasant cultures of northwest Spain, and on Juan Marsé’s with the working-class cultures of Barcelona, I also consider some other similar cases. I propose that the enthusiasm for regional autonomy during the Spanish transition generated a favorable breeding ground for experimentation with forms of political and aesthetic modernity that were capable of including aspects of traditional rural cultures. But I also note that perhaps the main difficulty for such operations was trying to reconcile cultures that prioritize the reproduction of a collective, interdependent life with the inevitably ‘productivist,’ individualistic drift of Spanish ‘modernity.’
I finish by recuperating the odd cases of certain ‘writer-workers,’ like Marsé, Vázquez Montalbán, and Francisco Candel, who constructed their poetics inspired by the collective modes of creative consumption of an incipient postwar mass culture (cinema, music, comics, etc.). I argue that, as in the case of the writers inspired by ‘peasant cultures,’ these writer-workers also gravitated towards a separation from the traditional roots that inspire them, as the depoliticized, individualist model of the ‘writer’ imposed from outside weakens those precarious ties.
In the second part of the book, I move on to a study of some of the disagreements and alternatives that arose to confront the model of cultural authority during the neoliberal crisis. I begin in the fourth chapter by considering some collaborative modes of value production in digital cultures. I take as my starting point the cyberactivist campaigns begun in protest against the so-called Sinde Law (2009) that limited online sharing practices. I relate this mass defense of the Internet to the fact that increasing job insecurity drove many people, especially young people, to find a space online where they could collaboratively cultivate their abilities to create value, since there was no opportunity for them to do so in an increasingly competitive, exclusive job market.
Furthermore, I note the importance of the dual tradition of defense of freedom and defense of online equality (with its countercultural and academic origins) (Bollier 2008). Likewise, I examine the explosion of ‘active publics’ that have sprung up around the mass cultures of the digital age (Jenkins 2006) as breeding grounds for the appearance of a democratic, participative Web in the Spanish state—a Web that encountered its defining moment in the struggles against the Sinde Law. I highlight this culture as an important source for the creation of a ‘subjectivity’ (culturally constructed identity) unknown to the hierarchical, competitive cultural establishment.
In this respect, I show how the polemic about the Internet served to generate an increasingly elaborate self-representation by a new social group that perceived itself as different from the establishment, irrespective of how many and varied were the positions and discourses this new group espoused. Importantly, I also note the latent tensions and contradictions—expressed, for example, in the boycott campaign, ‘No les votes,’ against the parties that supported the Sinde Law—between a liberal, individualist conception of society, and the increasingly widespread reality of liberal institutions’ inability to guarantee a true democracy.
In the fifth chapter, I analyze the drift of these new subjectivities and their contradictions into the 15M movement (also known as the Indignados). I argue that the creation of small ‘tent cities’ in the plazas at the start of the movement intensified the coordination of different abilities that was taking place online with the goal of collaboratively supporting the daily life of the protesters in the plazas. In other words, they avoided participation in the hierarchical, competitive logics of the neoliberal cultural authority that was being blamed for the economic crisis.
They thus strengthened a cultural model based on mutual empowerment and on the composition of diverse abilities and ways of knowing, from affective, daily, and experiential ones to specialized, technical ones. This model has become one of the main elements of a new political and cultural ‘climate,’ underpinning many other collective processes (Fernández-Savater 2012). Among these, of course, are those of the PAH and the civic Mareas (especially the Mareas in defense of public health and public education).
Opposition to this model by intellectuals and powerful media outlets has been staunch, and in this chapter I examine some of the ways these authorities have tried to discredit the ‘cultures of anyone’ arising from the ‘15M climate.’ They attempt this through their reliance on a social model that requires a large part of the population to set limits on its intelligence and delegate its capacities to those responsible for ‘establishing reality.’ I show that the cultures of anyone have essentially confronted this cultural power in three ways. In the first place, they respond directly, as happens more and more often in public speeches defending their position as ‘anyone.’ Second, they sidestep classifications and representations emitted by the powers that be, often through the use of digital tools and humor. And third, they confront the power structure by constructing spaces where they can exercise their right to a truly democratic culture in a sustained way, such as the plazas of the 15M, despite their relative transience.
Finally, in the sixth chapter, I continue my inquiry into the modes of constructing alternatives to the tradition of cultural authoritarianism and neoliberalism. I turn to a study of institutions that try to offer permanent life spaces for the ‘cultures of anyone.’ I highlight the cultural and political project Traficantes de Sueños (TdS), which belongs to the Fundación de los Comunes network, as an example of the successes achieved by self-managed spaces that base their ability to decommodify and democratize meaning production on the daily support of the communities that nourish them and benefit from them. I compare this example to a public institution, like Medialab-Prado, which shares many of TdS’s democratizing strategies, as well as contributing a few of its own. It suffers, however, from the widespread harassment aimed at the public sector by competitive, privatizing neoliberal logics.
I discuss how the growing civic interest in bringing the logics of democratic self-management to the public sphere runs up against that harassment. This is clearly exemplified in an offer of ‘participation’ extended by public institutions that doesn’t include the possibility of truly confronting precarization or any of the means that neoliberalism has at its disposal of capturing and speculating with collectively produced values. Building on the work of other researchers of public cultural policies, such as Rubén Martínez (2013), Jaron Rowan (2013), and Adolfo Estalella (2012), I analyze these questions in relation to the recently proposed Plan Estratégico de la Cultura de Madrid (PECAM). But I also suggest that if there has not been a civic defense of public cultural institutions comparable to those of health care and education, it isn’t just because the state has left those institutions to the mercy of neoliberal depredation. I think it’s also because of the inevitable tension that arises in the cultural sphere between experimentation and institutionality. Thus I note, in agreement with Sánchez Criado (2014), the importance of experimentation in constructing truly democratic cultures. At the same time, I emphasize the difficulty of conceiving of institutions that are sufficiently open to be able to sustain such experimentation.
I conclude my tour by recuperating some aesthetic projects that have brought democratic experimentation into the sphere of languages, symbols, and forms of representation in general. These include the poetics seminar Euraca, the readers’ network #Bookcamping, the musical platform Fundación Robo (and its ‘literary faction,’ Asalto), and the chronicle blog ‘Al final de la asamblea.’ Finally, I end by mentioning something I consider fundamental for the maintenance of the ‘cultures of anyone’: their ability not only to suggest answers to specific political and social problems, but also to question the authoritarian, competitive cultural lenses that condition our way of understanding those very problems, and to replace them with other, more democratic filters.
Cultural Authority and Neoliberal ‘Modernization’
Cultural Aspects of the Neoliberal Crisis: Genealogies of a Fractured Legitimacy
‘… guiada verás de la pura ley la mano del que sabe’
1.1. Crisis of a Hierarchical, Individualistic Cultural Model
1.1.1. Circuit of voices about crisis
At first, the ‘crisis’ was just one more news story, one more piece of information, one more topic of conversation in a world of news, information, and topics of conversation. Couched in the language of economists, the crisis appeared in the spring of 2007 as nothing more than an ‘expectation of a slowdown in economic growth.’ It was noted, however, that ‘the level of individual debt was very high due to mortgage rates’ and that ‘the real estate market had cooled.’ The following year, surveys and newspapers confirmed the bad news: ‘63% of Spaniards will have to limit their vacations to only one or two weeks, if that,’ ‘Spaniards Will Spend 15% Less on Seasonal Sales Due to the Economic Slowdown,’ ‘The Crisis Is Pushing Users Towards Buying Cheaper Drugs.’ Because, of course, at the beginning the crisis was already a threat to the fulfillment of individual desires in a world of individuals who seek to fulfill their desires.
From that implicit perspective on life, the media created stories that highlighted the crisis, adding information and showing its effects. They offered the life stories of young men and women who were affected by the crisis. The national newspaper El País quoted a number of them in their 2012 report ‘#Nimileuristas’ (‘not 1,000 euros’) on twenty-somethings and thirty-somethings who earn less than €1,000 a month and are desperate for work: ‘If nobody gives me a chance, how can I get experience?’ ‘I’ve written up a new resume that says I only have a high school diploma.’ ‘I work three hours a day and earn 200 euros.’ ‘I have never turned down any kind of work’ (El País 2012).
In the wake of this growing adjustment to ‘the crisis,’ and thus to an ever more precarious job market, the big media outlets kept repeating, summer after summer, ‘This year there will be less post-vacation depression because of the crisis.’ And the three or four people interviewed on the daily news shows confirmed, ‘Having a job these days is a luxury!’ Through all these years ‘in crisis,’ the social barometer readings of the Center for Sociological Research (CIS in Spanish) have accompanied these sound bites, consistently illustrating ‘Spaniards’ greatest worries’: unemployment, always in first place and apparently insurmountable, followed by the economy, corruption, and politics jockeying fiercely for the succeeding positions. ‘Corruption Unseats the Crisis, Pushing It to Second Place,’ announced public television in 2013, sounding for all the world like an announcer trying to generate excitement at a horse race.
But not everything has been numbers and surveys: from the start, the expert information has been accompanied, as is customary, by the less technical, more ‘human’ commentary of ‘intellectuals’ and ‘opinion-makers’ who dealt in the supposed language of ‘the man on the street.’ Columnists like Javier Marías were warning us as long ago as 2006 that ‘from the perspective of el hombre vulgar,’ with whom Marías claimed to be in agreement, ‘Spain is being destroyed by the deceptions of real estate developers, mayors, sponsors of public works, and independent counselors’ (Marías 2006). From the government, highly placed politicians like the President himself made statements designed to calm these kinds of fears, at the height of a 2007 that now seems so naïve: ‘Since Spanish financial entities are international models of solvency, they are much less exposed to risks like those faced by the mortgage market in the United States.’
In harmony with the government’s reassuring and almost proud response to the threat of the crisis, there were other declarations of the legitimacy of the status quo, occasionally from the ‘cultural world.’ A case in point is an academic book published shortly thereafter with the euphoric title of Más es más: sociedad y cultura en la España democrática, 1986–2008 (Gracia and Ródenas 2009), which was still, in 2009, celebrating the recent transformation of Spain into ‘an ultramodern, post-capitalist society which above all has lost a good part of the collective inferiority complexes that defined part of its image and its very reality.’ Although, to be fair, in weighing the pros and cons, the book simultaneously lamented society’s excessive confidence in ‘a sector like construction, which is so prone to speculation’ (14).
Undoubtedly there were also many other voices that are more difficult to recover now: we well know that at the same time, in private or semi-private circles, infinite daily conversations repeated, translated, countered, and reworked those news stories, pieces of information, and comments. In homes, in workplaces, at cinemas, museums and other entertainments, in cooperatives and activist milieus, and increasingly in the public-private sphere of digital networks, many people (placed by the words of those like Marías in the position of ‘common man’) were anticipating or already suffering difficulties, and blaming culprits. They tried to understand the technical language of economics by referring—often with total incredulity or suspicion—to that new reality of information still in formation: ‘the crisis.’
1.1.2. Establishing and consuming reality
This whole cycle (formed by the media, experts, intellectuals, politicians, academics, and ‘the people’) was heavily influenced by the generalized custom in contemporary Western societies of accepting as ‘reality’ whatever is shown, explained, commented, and made visible with facts, images and stories. We could call this the ‘habit of visible reality.’ It is an indirect heir of the great transformation that occurred at the beginning of so-called Western ‘modernity,’ which was the cause, as Michel de Certeau notes, of a progressive change in the way people viewed reality. Little by little, they stopped believing that reality was an invisible nucleus surrounded by deceptive appearances. In its place, they began to accept the opposite perspective that reality was visible, but needed to be studied empirically to discredit unfounded beliefs. A big gap was also opened through which a large part of that reality was illuminated by what would be the great legitimized method of observation: science. The rest was left in the dark, waiting to be studied by means of authorized scientific procedures that would replace traditional knowledge now considered deficient (‘primitive’ or ‘popular’) by the new cultural elites.
In a later (and more extreme) spin on this new paradigm, a new type of belief would spread: simply put, if something could be shown, made visible, it must be considered real. This is what de Certeau calls the ‘creation of reality,’ and this is how the mass media makes it work: representations, or simply visible ‘fictions’ or ‘simulations,’ are constructed which are assumed to be realistic, and which, by their very ability to make something visible, are taken as referents of reality.
Oddly, says de Certeau, this does not necessarily mean we believe that these fictions are reality. We know they are constructions, representations, and simulations. We don’t believe in them ‘directly’—what’s more, we often believe they are pure manipulation—but at the same time, we give them the status of reality, because we think they are ‘what everyone believes.’ It becomes a vicious circle, because ‘everyone’ believes that ‘everyone’ believes the media. Quoting ‘everyone’ thus becomes, according to de Certeau, the most sophisticated weapon for making people believe (or at least to get people to act as if they believe):
since it plays on what others supposedly believe, [the quote] becomes the means through which reality is established … ‘Opinion surveys’ have become the most basic and passive form of this kind of quote. This perpetual self-citation—the multiplicity of surveys—is the fiction through which the country is led to believe what the country itself is. (189)
‘The Crisis Makes Us More Miserable: Spain Shows Sixth Greatest Decline in Happiness.’ This was the finding of a UN study, later repeated on the journal 20 Minutes in September 2013.
On the other hand, this establishment of reality by the media takes place, as de Certeau also suggests, within the framework of an organizational system of commercialized, production- and consumer-oriented practices. This means that the media not only ‘establish’ reality, but also organize its reception by giving it the form of a market of products consumed by individuals. This organization thus reinforces another central custom of our contemporary Western societies: relating to reality as if it were a market of diverse possibilities to fulfill individual desires. And that, it seems to me, could be a good extended definition of what we sometimes call ‘consumerism.’
In a documentary entitled ‘¿Generación perdida?’ (Lost Generation?), which garnered a record audience for the public television program Documentos TV (746,000 viewers on October 9, 2011), an analysis of the crisis was presented that was very much in line with this type of organization of reality. The story revolved around seven young people who were not acquainted, and who represented very different ‘personal’ options in the face of the crisis. Thus, while one young woman left to live in the country, one of the men emigrated, a second woman protested at the university, another man spent his days at home on the sofa, and yet another man exerted himself to become a successful entrepreneur, and so on. The story centered much more on all those apparently individual responses to the crisis than on what the crisis itself might have meant for the family, social, local, or institutional environments in which these young people lived—never mind the possible collective responses generated from within those environments, the existence of which was obscure at best.
This type of reading—facing the crisis by focusing on some supposed individual decisions that led people to suffer through the crisis or face it according to their personal preferences (we could almost call it a kind of ‘crisis consumerism’)—has dominated media representations. Significantly, it is reproduced, for example, in an array of reports about young people in crisis, like the aforementioned report in El País, ‘#Nimileuristas.’ This was a sequel to material the newspaper had already published seven years previously about the ‘mileuristas’ (‘1,000 euroists’) (El País 2005): earning 1,000 euros a month only lasted a short time as a symbol of financial insecurity. In fact, in the seven years between 2005 and 2012, it became a coveted and unreachable goal for many. In both cases, the individual point of view was always given narrative pre-eminence. Furthermore, it was supported by basic assumptions, such as that society consists of a set of autonomous (in principal) individuals who form instrumental relationships among themselves, basically looking for work to gain access to the money that will allow them to fulfill their desires. The very labels ‘mileuristas’ and ‘nimileuristas,’ like the earlier and sadly famous ‘Ni-Nis’ (young people who ‘neither [ni] studied, nor [ni] worked’), are especially apt for this type of individualist and consumerist interpretation of reality (in the broader sense that I have proposed), since they attempt to name anomalies in a paradigm that views society as a group of autonomous individuals who work for money to be able to satisfy their individual desires.
1.1.3. The individualist fallacy
But as the geographer David Harvey explained in The Urban Experience (1989), understanding social reality as though it were essentially a supermarket of goods that individuals can acquire tends to disguise the material constitutive interdependence of human beings, and to exacerbate the competition between them. The philosopher Marina Garcés recently published her reflections on this constitutive human interdependence in her book Un mundo común (2013). She understands all existence as a radically unfinished, vulnerable, and relational process, asserting, ‘To exist is to depend … Our bodies, as thinking, desiring bodies, are imbricated in a network of interdependencies on multiple scales’ (67). This becomes increasingly obvious, in other respects, in our present globalized world: ‘The experience of global union is, in truth, the real but risky interdependence of the fundamental aspects of human life: reproduction, communication, and survival’ (21). Based on this experience, it is becoming increasingly difficult to believe in what Garcés calls the ‘fantasy of individual self-sufficiency,’ a fantasy that has dominated Western experience since liberalism invented the ‘individual owner,’ who would only enter into relations with others of his own free will and to exchange property.
No one is an island however. The necessary network of resources (cultural and ‘natural’), care, and mutual help that makes human life possible is an essential common heritage. This heritage, however, becomes hidden behind a veil of commercial transactions between individuals when social life is represented in the form of a market. Apart from that, to expect human subsistence to be based solely on these commercial transactions is extremely risky because, as the Spanish philosopher César Rendueles (2013) says, ‘commerce is a type of competitive interaction in which we try to take advantage of our opponent.’ He goes on to say:
Precapitalist societies thought it was crazy to base their material survival on the uncertainty of competition. For the same reason, we think a person who bets his or her only house at poker or plays Russian roulette is doing something not only risky but wrong: the imbalance between the risks and the benefits is too high. People always need food, clothing, care, and a place to lay their heads. Is it reasonable to subject these constant necessities to the whim of the market? (22)
The relative commercialization of life that is inevitable in all societies that use some form of money is extended and multiplied in the capitalist West, where money is effectively coming to be used as ‘the measure of all social value.’ Consequently, we also find more prevalent in the West the establishment of what Harvey called ‘the money community,’ a form of social relationship that substitutes ‘objective’ dependency structures for personal ties. Likewise, according to the anthropologist David Graeber (2011), this type of commercialization of social relationships allows us to delude ourselves that we can settle our ethical obligations to others by paying our monetary debts.
When the crisis hit the Spanish state about 2008, it was inevitably mediated through this paradigm of establishing and organizing reality as a market of products for individuals who relate to one another according to the laws of the ‘money community,’ reproducing a consumerist ‘subjectivity’—a culturally constructed lifestyle.
The crisis erupts, in fact, in a country integrated into a Western capitalism that tends to make money the measure of all social value. Moreover, the country has integrated an evolved, extreme form of capitalism that has been developing since the 1970s: neoliberalism. As Christian Laval and Pierre Dardot have noted, neoliberalism should be understood not only as an ‘ideology’ or an ‘economic policy,’ but as a true ‘way of life’ that would carry capitalism’s individualistic logic to extremes: ‘it has as a primary characteristic the generalization of competition as behavioral norm, and of business as a model for subjectivity.’ Or even as a ‘standard of life’ that ‘obligates everyone to live in a universe of generalized competition, commands both the employed and the unemployed, subjects relationships to the ways of the market, impels the justification of ever-greater inequalities, and also transforms the individual, who from then on is called on to perceive himself and conduct himself as a business’ (14).
1.1.4. Neoliberalism as the new way of the world
‘Germans are all work, they don’t take the time to chat as much as in Spain.’ Javier, a Spaniard who emigrated due to the crisis, offered this opinion in the ‘Expatriate’ section of the Huffington Post (‘Huyo de la realidad española’ 2014). He continues, ‘The important thing is to create a plan that lets you get to where you want to be in the future, and then follow it through.’ Irene, another immigrant to Berlin, is also looking to the future: ‘It hurts to leave my family, my boyfriend, my friends … But I think it’s what’s best for me.’ The vice president of the Youth Council, however, is not so optimistic about emigration. ‘It is obvious that this process will imply, first of all, a substantial loss of human capital for the country,’ he laments.
The neoliberal conversion of ‘life’ to ‘human capital’ clearly has a counterpart in all the rest of humanity which does not seem so ‘capitalizable,’ and which frequently encounters many more obstacles to emigration. This other mass of humanity is spoken of in other sections of the newspapers, and with very different metaphors—such as the recently much-overused one of ‘attack’: ‘Massive Attack of Immigrants on Spanish Borders’ (Euronews), ‘Around 1,000 Immigrants Attempt Another Unsuccessful Attack on the Ceuta Border Fence’ (El Mundo), ‘One Civil Guard for Every 64 Immigrants Waiting for the Attack’ (La Razón).
Neoliberalism permeates everything, from the microbusiness that is me to giant transnational businesses and their flow of cheap labor. Exacerbating these competitive tendencies, which only increase as they move from monetarized societies to capitalist ones, neoliberalism’s success is immense, and it ended up becoming the real ‘reason for the world’ towards the end of the twentieth century, according to Laval and Dardot:
For more than 30 years, this rule of existence has dominated public policies, ruled global economic relations, and remodeled subjectivity. The circumstances of this normative success have been described frequently, be they the political aspect (the conquest of power by neoliberal forces), the economic aspect (the rise of globalized financial capitalism), the social aspect (individualization of social relations at the expense of collective solidarities, with extreme polarization between rich and poor), or the subjective aspect (appearance of a new subject and development of new psychological pathologies). (14)
In twenty-first-century Spain, marked by the spread of neoliberal logic into all these areas (political, economic, social, or subjective), the crisis that began in 2008 was constructed as a media referent that filtered through a neoliberal lens the very real, prolonged, and increasing suffering of people who lost their homes, their jobs, and their hopes of finding a job; people impacted by cutbacks in basic public services for healthcare, addiction, or education, forced to emigrate in search of work, and a long and painful etcetera. As this media referent, the crisis was, again, primarily the story of an irritating situation that interrupted the ‘normal’ course of life, an obstacle to the possible satisfaction of individual desires in the reality market. It was constantly kept in the public eye through more surveys, more news stories, more facts and rumors that ‘the public’ could later use as fodder for conversations about ‘the state of the country.’ The crisis, we were told by the huge media corporations, keeps us from realizing our dreams, it makes life harder for us, it even causes ‘human drama’ (such as, notably, the ‘drama of the evictions,’ as the well-known journalistic formula goes).
1.1.5. Crisis of the system as crisis of a way of life
Regarding the causes of the crisis, the media presented two main hegemonic narratives, which were hinted at from the beginning. On one hand, it was suggested that the crisis was a technical problem, and as such, it had to be solved by experts (‘Experts Ask the EU to “Intervene” in the Spanish Economy,’ 2010; ‘An Expert Affirms that the Crisis Will Not End this Legislature,’ 2011; ‘World Bank Expert: Spain Has No Solution without Credit to the SMEs,’ 2013). On the other hand, ethical and political responsibilities were pointed out. For the most part, these were seen as responsibilities of the elites and of professional groups like those construction firms and mayors Marías called ‘the villains of the nation.’ But sometimes, the finger was pointed more generally at society as a whole, for ‘living beyond its means’ (‘Fátima Báñez: Spain Has Lived beyond its Means,’ ‘Rajoy: We’ve Bought Trips to the Caribbean on Credit,’ ‘Urkullu Claims the Basques Have Lived beyond their Means’).
The crisis appeared, then, as a technical matter explained in the language of experts or as a moral question that the voices of authority should denounce, within that constant flow of stories channeled by the media. But the passage of time and the growing brutality of events they hoped to pass off as ‘economic crisis’ inevitably weakened the first narrative (crisis as ‘technical failure’ to be solved by experts). It also clearly showed that the accusation against the common citizens in general was perverse, and strengthened the version that pointed towards the guilty elites. The financial experts who were supposed to have solved the problem were not able to, so the crisis was probably something more than a ‘technical’ problem. For their part, the politicians in power in the halls of government had bet—and ultimately lost—almost all their credibility on those very same experts who supposedly had created a Spain ‘without an inferiority complex’ and with ‘international models of solvency.’ The citizens may have played a role in the disaster, but their actions were guided by the leadership of experts and politicians.
It is difficult to determine at what point the crisis of legitimacy that affected politicians and financial experts alike began to intensify, crossing a point of no return. The repeated corruption scandals in the political sphere were probably the last straw. A new incarnation of the ‘crisis’ phenomenon appeared. It was no longer merely a financial crisis, nor even a crisis caused by the moral irresponsibility of some social actors; now it was a ‘system crisis.’ Or perhaps we should say ‘system error,’ echoing the computer science language sometimes used by the 15M movement, which was one of the main defenders, but by no means the only one, of this ‘systemic’ reading of the crisis.
‘They call it democracy, but it’s not’ and ‘We’re not anti-system, the system is anti-us’ are slogans widely used by the political movement the mass media called Indignados (the outraged ones), but who generally called themselves ‘15M.’ Both slogans refer to an intensification of the crisis of legitimacy of something, generally known as ‘Spanish democracy,’ that is perceived as a ‘system.’ This ‘system’ has imprecise contours, but it undoubtedly includes experts and politicians as prominent movers and shakers who make it work. It also has temporal dimensions: it includes all currently existing official institutions, and also reaches into the recent past of its own development (generally back to the ‘transition to democracy,’ which becomes a polemical process that requires reinterpretation).
There are various assessments that could be made of the 15M movement and its immediate legacy. Nevertheless, its attenuation or transformation into other processes does not seem to have dispelled the narrative that vaguely declares the crisis to be one of ‘the system.’ This being the case, the ‘system’ could not be saved simply by replacing the people who fill its structures. Rather, a transformation of the very ‘rules of the game’ is required.
But the real question is, What game are we talking about? Is it merely a game of institutional powers, or one of the experts themselves? Does it exclude from ‘social games,’ to continue the metaphor, those players who do not hold institutional or expert positions, but participate actively or passively both in the ‘system of reality creation’ to which I have referred and in the ‘neoliberal reason’ that articulates that reality commercially and individually?
I think it is more interesting to question whether the tough economic situation has produced an important erosion in the ways of thinking and living that also facilitate those social games that permeate life beyond institutional power. That is, has the ‘crisis of the system’ affected the very ‘system of reality creation and consumption’ that was presented as the hegemonic frame of the crisis? In this sense, I want to explore sociocultural processes in which it seems that what is shaky is not only institutional prestige or the validity of explicit political and social consensus, but rather a kind of life experience (a kind of ‘subjectivity’) that tacitly accepts the organization of reality as a market by the mass media, experts, politicians, intellectuals, and opinion-makers. At the same time, of course, this ‘subjectivity’ fiercely demands individual freedom to choose between the competitive options offered in the world created by those external instances.
In other words, I think it is legitimate (and even necessary) to recognize and explore in what sense, since 2008, is not only the Spanish ‘economy’ that is in crisis, but also a very entrenched way of life, one in which political and economic experts, together with other experts and ‘intellectuals’ in general, are expected to shoulder the responsibility for guaranteeing the means for each and every person to be able to follow his or her individual desires. That is, we need to acknowledge that what has entered into crisis—up to a point that makes it necessary to investigate—has been a culture that is technocratic and hierarchical, because it understands the establishment of the social ‘rules of the game’ (politics and the economy) as technical or ‘profound’ matters to be resolved by experts and intellectuals. On the other hand, it is also a consumerist culture because it understands daily life as an individual’s election and attainment of a series of desired objects, in a process that is eerily similar to a business transaction.
These are the cultural dimensions of the ‘economic crisis’ that I want to explore. I should clarify that they are frequently isolated and considered contradictory: some people believe the cultural authority or hierarchy of experts, intellectuals, and the media clashes with consumerist individualism, which no longer believes in any authority. Those commentators say the great modern paradigms of the former have lost power in the face of the selfish postmodern nihilism of the latter.
There seems to be a certain truth to these proposals, and no doubt the technocracy or the prestige of the intellectuals are very different phenomena from individualist consumerism. Nevertheless, I note a certain convergence between these cultural models in neoliberal Spain, as well as a common genealogy, and later a crisis that is equally shared by both. The apparent centrality of the consumerist individual, as Laval and Dardot indicate, goes hand in hand with a ‘reason for the world’ that imposes competitive means of existence. I would add that it is also supported by forms of authority, hierarchy, and cultural inequality—especially those established by the modern technoscientific divide, including its heirs in the media world. Therefore, I do not think that the desire to understand together these diverse ways of organizing the meaning of life should be understood a priori as reductionism. That is, I would hope that we could at least concede the possibility of asking whether it is relevant to do so to understand a series of concrete historical moments.
1.1.6. The cultural dimension of the economy and its technification
To begin this broad genealogical contextualization, I first turn to a central tenet of the feminist economics tradition regarding the technification of the field—one that has had so many consequences for neoliberalism and its glorification of ‘financial experts’ and ‘markets.’ This central tenet will also allow me to clarify what I mean by ‘cultural impact of the economic crisis,’ since it articulates precisely the necessary interdependence of the economic and the cultural.
The feminist Italian economist Antonella Picchio reminds us that the so-called classical political economics of Smith, Ricardo, and Marx always kept very clearly in mind the cultural—ethical and political—dimension of economics, beyond its technical, quantitative, or specialized aspects. And that the field was originally presented as being in the service of the common good or happiness, with the understanding that such happiness did not mean mere physical subsistence, but the possibility of a life worth living, a life that has value and meaning; in short, a ‘decent life,’ which included culture and sociability. Picchio shows that classicalists like Adam Smith never understood the ‘wealth of nations’ as something separate from happiness, customs, or social tastes, and definitely not separate from how those nations wanted to live. Smith says, in Lectures on Jurisprudence and Wealth (1776), ‘The whole industry of human life is employed not in procuring the supply of our three humble necessities, food, clothes, and lodging, but in procuring the conveniences of it according to the nicety and delicacy of our taste’ (2013, 160).
Thus, classical political economics proposed as necessary the pursuit of a life with dignity, firmly melding culture and economics as two sides of the same coin. There can be no material sustainability without a cultural understanding and elucidation of what we consider to be worth keeping in each case. (Of course, classical economics continued to reserve for itself the authority to answer from a privileged place the question of what is a life with dignity, since it was a field of knowledge authorized by its ‘modern’—read ‘scientific’—genealogy.) Only later, in a transformational process studied by Picchio, did the heirs of this field, specifically those who belonged to the so-called ‘neoclassical’ school, try to erase from economics that pursuit of a life with dignity. They argued the existence of purely economic matters that needed to be separated from cultural ones, adding that each individual should decide for him or herself how they wanted to be happy.
Picchio notes a key moment in this transformation: the appearance of the famous Essay on the Nature and Significance of Economic Science, written in 1932 by the British economist Lionel Robbins (1935). In it, asserts Picchio, ‘with the purpose of reaching his goal of redefining economics, he trades the analytical object of wellbeing—understood as effective living conditions—for the more general, abstract idea of utility as optimization of individual choices, under the bonds of scarcity’ (35). Robbins offers, in this sense, a definition of economics that has become famous: ‘Economics is the science of analyzing human behavior as the relationship between some specific ends and some scarce means that have a range of possible uses’ (16).
In proposing this definition, the British economist strengthened the belief—still hegemonic in the field today—that economics is a technical matter that supposedly asks about the means and not the ends. His proposal actually gave, implicitly, the following response to the great ethical and political question about a life with dignity: a life with dignity is whatever each individual wants to pursue within the rules given by the economic experts. What Robbins and the heirs of his definition of economics intended, therefore, was twofold: that all collective cultural work necessary to constantly respond to the question about what is worth sustaining socially be broken down to individual desires; and furthermore, that it be subject to their decisions as supposed economic experts.
This refusal by the field of economics to consider the goals of a life with dignity has spread throughout the entire capitalist world. Determining a ‘decent life’ has become a simple mathematical calculation that attempts—unsuccessfully, as César Rendueles graphically demonstrates—to explain all human activity as instrumental behavior (98). But, as I will shortly try to show in greater detail, that same technoscientific aura had already involved, for some considerable time, a key element to bring the field of economics to the highest circles of power in capitalist societies. In Spain’s case, two historical moments to which I will return in this chapter are essential in this regard.
I refer, in the first place, to the famous rise of the Opus Dei technocrats to power during Francoism, who configured a first ‘liberalization’ of the Spanish economy; in other words, an opening for the entry of foreign capital following Franco’s autarchy. This opening was essentially a bet on tourism as a privileged sector. Sánchez León notes that it was during this time that an important perception of Spanish society as ‘middle class’ became established. This included the acritical acceptance of the power of ‘experts’ as part of a great process of civic depoliticization, perhaps uninterrupted on a large scale until the current crisis.
Second, hidden within that depoliticization and inheriting a primacy from the tourism/real estate economic sector they will never really be able to change—as López and the collective known as the Observatorio Metropolitano de Madrid explain—in the 1980s, the protagonists of that other great moment of legitimacy and the triumph of the economic technocracy appear. The Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE)—which was called upon to complete the long-awaited ‘modernization’ and ‘standardization’ of the country after the dictatorship—institutes the Spanish version of neoliberalism (industrial reconversion, job insecurity, privatization, etc.), always with the leitmotif of being necessary adjustments for Spain to enter the European Economic Community (EEC 1986).
1.1.7. Collective elucidation of ‘a life with dignity’
If there was ever a society inclined not only to accept but to enshrine the technocratic power of ‘economics’ and its experts, it was Spain’s neoliberal society of the last three decades. In that time, according to Harvey, the transition from industrial to financial capitalism has occurred on a global scale. In the name of those famous ‘markets’ to which the financing of global capitalism has given an almost limitless power, Spanish neoliberalism has built huge speculative bubbles like the one that initiated the economic crisis that recently left the country with almost 6 million people unemployed (some 26.7% of the active population), 8 million in poverty, and a loss of 700,000 to emigration since the crisis began. The cultural impact of the economic crisis in Spain has been so profound that it has affected this great assumption, the touchstone of neoliberalism: this confidence in the experts as organizers of the economy, and in essence, as authorities who decide what a life with dignity should be.
To give a well-known example, recently Spain’s austerity policies, justified with technocratic plans, have recommended taking away a threshold of dignity considered necessary by many: free health care for everyone. Javier Fernández-Lasquetty, the Health Minister for Madrid, had to step down in 2014 in the face of massive protests because of his attempt to privatize the city’s hospitals. He always tried to justify his policies with an economicist discourse, appealing to ‘sustainability,’ ‘cost-cutting,’ etc. That technical language, however, has not prevented the legitimacy of politicians like Fernández-Lasquetty from plummeting just like house prices in Spain (something experts always said would never happen). Politicians had relied on the expert words of economists to decide what has value, what Spanish society ought to take care of, support, and reproduce. With the crisis of confidence in experts, inevitably, collective processes of creating social value that are not based on technocratic estimates become visible or gain importance.
The feminist tradition, with thinkers like Picchio and another Italian, Silvia Federici, has also shown how domestic work and physical and emotional caregiving, despite being central to and indispensable for the social reproduction of a life with dignity, are made invisible and undervalued in neoliberal technocracies. Something similar happens with the cultural work performed daily by multitudes of nonexperts to collectively elucidate and propose the values and meanings of a life worth living. Collective cultural processes like the recent protests in defense of Internet freedom, the 15M movement and its subsequent mutations, have perhaps been, among other things, attempts to give value to all that unrecognized daily work and to intensify its democratic potential in the face of what the movements sometimes call ‘the dictatorship of the markets.’ In this sense, I will propose that they can be understood as processes of opening and support of spaces where people can meet as a community to pose anew the question about a life with dignity that classical political economics put on the table.
But before that, in this first part I want to study precisely that hierarchical, technocratic, consumerist culture characterized by presupposing the impossibility of collectively defining, with input from all walks of life, what a life with dignity is. This impossibility is articulated in two apparently incompatible, but actually complementary, ways. On one hand, we have the necessity that it be experts—or those ‘in the know’ in general—who have the responsibility for making a life with dignity possible by making decisions about our social organization. On the other, we have an insistence on the individual as the supposed protagonist of human life, and therefore as the necessary author and ‘free agent’ of the decisions that affect his or her life.
Together with the contradiction implicit in turning over to experts matters that clearly pertain to that supposed sacred space of our individual liberty, these two approaches also exhibit a fundamental convergence: the tacit acceptance of a profound inequality in society. That is, the acceptance that first of all, we define ourselves as unequal individuals who either belong to the group ‘in the know,’ or to the group ‘in the dark,’ as it were, and who ultimately respond to an individuality that reproduces that fundamental inequality on a smaller scale. To wit: an individual is someone who knows about ‘what is good for me,’ without having to worry about the interests of others, while an expert is someone who knows about ‘what is good for all of society,’ in the face of the inevitable ignorance of the uninformed masses. It seems to me that studying the cultural impact of the Spanish neoliberal crisis must involve an examination of the validity, and at the same time, the weakening of the deep beliefs and practices founded on that radical conception of human inequality.
1.2. Enlightened Gardeners, or, the Power of Knowledge
1.2.1. Ordinary people and people who think
The clear weakening of the authority of technoscientific experts, specifically economists, together with the weakening of the credibility of politicians that has occurred during the years of the Spanish neoliberal crisis, does not necessarily imply the twilight of what we might call ‘cultures of inequality.’ This is because these cultures are the underlying foundation of the intellectual hierarchies of technocracy and consumerism. Neoliberal economists and politicians are not the only figures to embody the divide between those ‘in the know’ and those ‘in the dark.’ Nor are they the only ones responsible for the continuing reproduction of the individualist, consumerist model of life. Assuming a broad historical perspective, if we trace the specific genealogy of their expert authority beyond the origins of the field of economics and of the neoliberalism that empowers it, we can illuminate a broader context for that ‘culture of inequality’ to which they belong.
Going very far back in that genealogy, one could even recover the American anthropologist Paul Radin (1883–1959), as Zygmunt Bauman did in his book Legislators and Interpreters. Bauman used Radin’s work to research the existence of ‘cultures of inequality’ in premodern, precapitalist societies, and, of course, to investigate what might remain of them in the ‘modern’ (and ‘postmodern’) world. Without taking too seriously this American ethnographer and his studies of the cultures not only he, but modern science in general, considered ‘primitive,’ it is nonetheless interesting to consider a basic observation he made:the existence in all of those ‘primitive tribes’ of a division between ‘religious’ people, responsible for thinking, and other ‘secular’ people, responsible for doing. Bauman gives his own take on this universal division of labor described by Radin: ‘In the beginning, there is an opposition between the great majority of ordinary people, preoccupied with their daily business of survival, “action” in the sense of the routine reproduction of their conditions of existence, and a small group of those who could not but reflect upon “action”’ (10).
Of course, that minority with the privilege of thinking also needs to have the necessary conditions for its life (and its thinking) reproduced, and in this sense, it holds a parasitic position relative to the rest of the tribe, who guarantee that reproduction. But why would the majority accept this unfair situation? Why would they not only support those ‘thinkers,’ but also grant them the monopoly on an activity that is so basic and so important for human beings?
According to Radin, the answer is that these philosopher-priests serve the majority by confronting humanity’s ‘primary source of fear’: uncertainty. The philosopher-priest postulates a privileged space from which he can supposedly confront uncertainty better than the rest of his people. This purported privileged space is often justified by a special familiarity the philosopher has with uncertainty itself (with chaos, fate, mystery). A familiarity that is ‘shown’ through rituals and periods of isolation, purification, and obsession, which, Bauman indicates, are not so different from those that grant legitimacy to the figure of the intellectual as he is understood by Western modernity.
And beyond the enormous differences between the shamans of precapitalist societies and modern intellectuals, what interests Bauman most among the lessons to be gleaned from Radin is simply the importance of the monopoly on intelligence and knowledge as a tool of domination. This is why he says that the mere appearance on the scene of a caste that attempts to specialize in the ability to reason produces at that moment a crucial segregation and social asymmetry: ‘the doers now become dependent upon thinkers; the ordinary people cannot conduct their life business without asking for, and receiving, the religious formulators’ assistance. As members of society, the ordinary people are now incomplete, imperfect, wanting’ (12).
The dependence and the supposed ‘incompleteness’ of ‘ordinary folk’—of ‘just anyone’—would be intensified again and again, as new forms of domination were perfected and instituted, integrating and emphasizing that ‘intellectual’ element. Another crucial thing also happens: that particular intellectual element, and not the entire structure of domination, is charged with conceptualizing and naming the supposed weaknesses of the oppressed group. This is why it is not at all strange that the absence of intelligence becomes a classic attribute of this group:
Whether the oppressed are constructed as primitive, traditional, or uncivilized; whether the category construed is that of non-European cultures, non-white races, the lower classes, women, the insane, the sick, or the criminal—inferiority of mental capability in general, and inferior grasp of moral principles or the absence of self-reflection and rational self-analysis in particular, are almost invariably salient in the definition. (18)
1.2.2. Enlightened modernity as monopoly of meaning production
We offer now some words written by one of the most celebrated Enlightenment thinkers of Spain, Father Benito Feijoo (2014), from his essay ‘Honor and Benefits of Agriculture’ (1739):
Peasants are not people of reflection, nor of observation; from their betters they accept the bad and the good, and they insist on it, if no enlightenment comes to them from without. This is seen in several adages, which they obstinately retain; even if, however little reflection they might engage in, experience were to clearly demonstrate the falseness of these sayings. (XII, XVIII, 34)
How can we not see in this characterization of peasants a reworking of the classic construction of the oppressed as lacking in intelligence?—a construction performed, no less, by a member of the very group that reserves for themselves the right to use their intelligence. In this case, the operation is articulated from that ‘modernity’ that is based on legitimizing observation as the source of truth and an antidote to unfounded beliefs (‘experience … put before their very eyes the falseness of these maxims’), instead of using the theological legitimation. But the mechanism is the same: the negation of intelligence in those who are dedicated to ensuring the reproduction of material life, and the construction of a monopoly on authorized knowledge.
As de Certeau explains, oppressed groups, or those not otherwise ‘legitimized’ by the divide opened by the paradigm of modern knowledge, always develop tactics that allow them to survive and make sense of their life from the position in which they find themselves. In Feijoo’s words, that intelligence of the oppressed is glimpsed in those ‘adages’ used by peasants that he considers ‘obstinate’; likewise, his disciple, the Count of Campomanes, father of classical economics in Spain, considered that ‘the way their grandfathers taught them to work the land’ kept workers from learning the scientific advances of modern agriculture.
More than a discussion of the greater or lesser value of traditional knowledge versus scientific, erudite knowledge, what I want to highlight is how that traditional knowledge is denied the very status of being knowledge, since it is expected that those who inherit and cultivate it have a supposed inability to ‘reflect’ and ‘observe.’ I obtained the previous quotes from the work of the historian Jesús Izquierdo, who has analyzed how citizen status has been repeatedly denied to rural peasants by the Spanish cultural and political elites. They are also excluded from that other great phenomenon of modernity, what we could consider the distant origin of consumerist individualism to which I referred earlier: ‘the growth of an increasingly individualistic understanding of human nature that was considered to be embodied only in those who dwelled inside the symbolic walls of the city’ (2007, 632). From that individualist perspective, Izquierdo reminds us, the notion of the ‘modern citizen’ is created, and from it, he says,
We agree on (we experience together) a way of conceiving of ourselves—and of proceeding—as sovereign individuals in the determination of our personal interests, as entities whose moral compasses are autonomous, as subjects gifted with a reflectivity beyond compare that enables us to decide our identity and distance ourselves from the collective traditions and conventions that ensnared those who came before us. We experience our society as an aggregate of individual wills from which, when the moment comes, one can voluntarily back away. In short, we theorize our subjectivity based on our identification with an individual ‘I’ that we consider part of the natural order of things. However, despite this anthropologically ahistorical appearance, this identity and its attributes are discursive and historical constructions that operate by giving us the necessary certainty about ourselves—a personal identity in space and time—to act rationally in the world in which we live. (2007, 629)
Izquierdo shows that it was not only the men of the Enlightenment, but also later generations of learned ‘progressive’ elites who naturalized this individualist ideology as if it were the only one possible, thus denying the possibility of intelligence and citizenship to the rural peasants because they did not share this anthropology. Thus, we can trace this theme through time: Jovellanos wrote in the eighteenth century of the ‘barbaric customs’ of the ‘crude and simple peasant’; then in the nineteenth century, we find the regenerationist Joaquín Costa characterizing farmers as a ‘backward, imaginative, and presumptuous race’ or a ‘sick, juvenile people.’ In fact, Costa tends towards an even stronger naturalization of these negative characteristics as inherent to the people, while the Enlightenment intellectuals considered them more a question of circumstances, the result of a ‘corruption of customs.’ Even in the writings of the Republicans, who would launch (ultimately aborted) Agrarian Reforms, observations about the ‘childish mentality of the peasant’ can be found.
In any case, I am most interested in the especially violent inflection that intellectual domination seems to be developing in modern times. This could be because we are living in a time when those who reserve to themselves the monopoly of meaning production seek, perhaps more than ever before, to be able to more than merely attenuate that ‘uncertainty’ that always stalks us. Rather, they want the power to defeat it once and for all, returning to a state of tabula rasa all of the knowledge and traditions that do not meet their needs.
For Bauman, one of the keys to the appearance of what he calls the ‘modern power/knowledge syndrome’ is ‘the emergence of a type of state power’—i.e., absolutist—‘with the resources and will necessary to give form to and manage the social system according to a preconceived model of order’ (26). The emergence of this type of absolutist power capable of imposing a ‘preconceived order’ is certainly an extremely complex and enduring historical phenomenon, which marches in parallel with the entire process of disarticulation of the feudal forms of power that would open the way to Foucault’s ‘disciplinary institutions’ and ‘bio-power.’ But Bauman graphically summarizes this complexity with the metaphor of ‘savage’ societies and garden societies. The former are equated with feudalism, in which the rich and powerful did not intervene directly in the lives of their subjects, except to regularly extract most of the wealth generated by their processes of reproduction (like a hunter who takes his prey from a fertile forest). The latter are equated with modern societies: the power players are gardeners who want to directly arrange and organize every aspect of the lives of the dominated, to be able to extract their wealth more efficiently, and, of course, to insure that the production of wealth that they themselves can appropriate drives every aspect of the lives of everyone beneath them.
For the ‘gardening’ work or, rather, ‘social engineering’ required by the new absolutist states, bearers of the new scientific legitimacy would be needed. Thus, the enlightened men or philosophes like Feijoo and Campomanes (with less luck than their peers in other countries, which were more inclined towards experimentation) would become the managers of the new version of a pastoral and proselytizing power (heir of the Christian paradigm, as Foucault explained) that would define the modern social order. After them, says Bauman, a whole new tradition of ‘expert administrators, teachers, and social scientists specializing in converting and cultivating human souls and bodies’ were to continue their task as the ‘gardeners,’ consolidating a ‘new structure of domination—the rule of the knowledgeable and knowledge as a ruling force’ (67).
1.2.3. The origin of capitalism as dispossession of the cultures of survival
Bauman’s explanation of the emergence of this power/knowledge syndrome resonates with Silvia Federici’s analysis of the origin of capitalism in Calibán y la bruja. For her, the central element of this process was denying the peasants access to the resources—i.e., that ‘fertile forest’ the feudal elites raided only occasionally—which would allow them to support and reproduce their lives with any degree of autonomy. This denial typically equates principally to the infamous enclosures of ‘common lands’ built at the beginning of agrarian capitalism—and to which Baumann also alludes. But Federici explains it in a much broader context: the appearance of capitalism implies the devaluation of all reproductive domestic work—caregiving, rearing, feeding, everything indispensable for subsistence and typically done by women—which is not directly compensated in the new wage system, and therefore becomes invisible and endangered.
Together with all this reproductive work and caregiving, of course, much of the symbolic and intellectual wealth of the traditions and ways of life that nurtured what John Berger (1991) called ‘cultures of [rural] survival’ also became invisible and endangered. Among these traditions and ways of life, as Federici notes, were those that would become stigmatized as ‘witchcraft.’ In this sense, we could recall those ‘adages’ Feijoo denigrated, now understood as representative of all the heritage of oral, practical knowledge—for example, natural ‘remedies’ for birth control—that was heavily devalued with the advent of capitalism, since they neither contributed to nor adjusted to the new domain of wage relations as the main source of survival. The capitalist system, therefore, puts the production of wealth that can be converted to money (especially through paid work) at the center, thus threatening the material and cultural reproduction of large sectors of the population that do not have easy access to that type of wealth. This also effectively separates these populations from the traditional resources and knowledges that previously guaranteed their survival.
Of course, as Berger himself said, keeping this transformation in mind does not mean glorifying the ‘cultures of survival,’ which undoubtedly had their own conditions of misery and exploitation, as well as their own cultural hierarchies, which were just as hard as, or even harder than, those that arose under capitalism: ‘Nobody can reasonably argue for the preservation and maintenance of the traditional peasant way of life. To do so is to argue that peasants should continue to be exploited, and that they should lead lives in which the burden of physical work is often devastating and always oppressive’ (xxvii). Even so, I think it’s important to remember the process of dispossessing feudal peons of the resources that allowed them to manage their own subsistence at least in some degree, and relate it to their transformation into ‘biopolitical’ objects of a social engineering focused on maximizing the production of goods under capitalism. This connection becomes crucial for understanding the series of complex, interrelated, long-term historical processes known as ‘modernization,’ and in particular, the role the educated elite played in them by attempting to monopolize the intellectual dimension (or at least, the cultural hierarchization they have created).
In considering the monopolistic role of the elites, we might think that ‘modernization’ includes using a version of the human intellectual domain as a form of domination that denies, in a particularly virulent way, the ability of ‘ordinary folk’ (as Bauman called them), of those ‘nobodies’ dedicated to the reproduction of life, to produce meaning. In that sense, ‘modernization’ would perhaps imply a particular disconnect between the activity of thinking and that of supporting life (which includes thinking itself, although that is disavowed).
1.3. ‘Transplanting People’: Capitalist Modernization and Francoist Technocracy
1.3.1. Francoist implantation of a capitalism of ‘experts’
In their seminal introduction to the collection of essays Spanish Cultural Studies (1995), Jo Labanyi and Helen Graham state that ‘modernizing’ processes include both the bourgeois political revolution and the economic implementation of capitalism. From these processes emerges the very notion of ‘culture’ that will go on to function as a form of legitimation and of exclusion in the service of those same historical processes: ‘“culture” takes on its modern sense in order to define who does or does not “have culture,” and to discriminate between the different forms of culture possessed by different strata of the population’ (7). Bourgeoiscapitalist modernization—which, with the help of those modifiers, could perhaps leave behind those quotation marks that remind us not to take its meaning for granted—postulates the privileged point of view of those who promote political liberalism and economic capitalism. That point of view is called ‘culture.’ Everyone else is allowed to have second-class cultures: ‘folklore,’ which does not participate in modernization and which therefore is mere decoration or something to inspire nostalgia or feed the souvenir business.
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