Was Spain’s 15M Acid Communism?

To quote Hegel at the beginning of an article is dangerous but here goes “when philosophy paints its grey in grey, then has a shape of life grown old. The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the coming of the dusk.

What does the old wise German idealist mean here. Essentially, philosophical ideas only come to the fore when the action has happened and that coming to terms with what has passed, i.e forming an historical narrative, can help us to learn both good and bad things. So, did the Spanish event of 15M, an influence to the worldwide Occupy movements that followed, achieve acid communism before it was even thought of? Is that why Fisher is gaining popularity in the Iberian world now or is it just that the translations have finally been released and the book companies need to make some dollar?

Mark Fisher was a British cultural theorist who was eminently popular for his blog K-Punk, which brought continental theory from the cold dreary lecture halls into the DIY, self governing world of internet blogs around the same time I was using MySpace to promote my band and trying to lose my virginity. With the blogosphere extended, he and two friends founded Zer0 books to help spread cultural critique and continental theory commentary into the mainstream (later Repeater books was established to carry forward this legacy). With Zer0, Fisher published his seminal text Capitalism Realism and to add as an extension of his critique of late capitalism he also released Ghosts of My Life. This title included content on hauntology and lost futures. These concepts made up the base of Fisher’s critique of postmodern society. However books were just a by-product of his blog which is why he did most of his thinking bouncing ideas off his fellow bloggers in the comment sections and on other people’s blogs. Fisher was also a prolific music review writer and he often wrote polemic articles such as his article about mental health being political for the Guardian  amongst many others. He also didn’t enjoy the fact that people were starting to film his talks at events and putting them on YouTube. Mark was a good public speaker, someone you could see was in their element whilst teaching and sharing ideas. Whilst he may not have liked it, and often sounds like an introvert who is being forced to speak, we should be glad we have this footage of him sharing his views on our society. Take a look.

Sadly, in 2017 he died by suicide. This has led to countless interpretations of his work, a 900 page collection of unpublished work and even people fighting over his legacy. Some ivory tower theorists may claim that he is only fashionable now because of his tragic death and that he really didn’t contribute much to the western Marxist philosophical canon. I would argue his popularisation of theory and interaction as a cultural critic was praxis in a modern sense of the word. He was, after all, a teacher. So what is all the fighting about? The misapplication or flawed understanding of his theories that he left behind.  I, myself, am guilty of over applying the theory of capitalism realism to much of my ideological analysis. I suppose that’s what happens with widely diffused critical theory. (Personally I hate it when shock theory is over applied)

With all that said, his unfinished work Acid Communism left much to be desired. He only finished the introduction to the would be book (it’s in the 900 page collection if you want to read it or online somewhere), and discussed it with a few select people. It has spawned countless blog entries, further arguments, zines, workshops, interviews and even a podcast. (ACFM on Novara Media, thank me later, it’s great).

So what is acid communism? It was essentially his response to his own critique of late-stage capitalism. Without going into too much detail right here, his analysis consisted of the commonly held belief, or view, that there is no alternative to capitalism and that we cannot pathologically think past capitalism. He uses Frederic Jameson’s famous phrase as a starting point for his argument “it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism“. There are various ways of looking at this phrase, from the popular understanding that we keep on producing films, television series and books that envision the end of the world (Walking Dead, Clover field…) but we are not collectively able to imagine a world past capitalism. Or another popular understanding, and my personal favourite, is that every time we imagine the end of capitalism; we imagine the end of the world. Fisher followed this up with his analysis of popular culture where creative people kept on repeating things from the past and nothing felt new. This was a reimagining of Derrida’s hauntology. An example would be if you released the Arctic Monkeys’ I bet you look good on the dancefloor in the 1980s that it wouldn’t have been out of place. This refers to our inability to think past capitalism. We cannot create something new; everything has a spectre of the past haunting it. In this we are reliving lost futures. Often past situations that never came to fruition, or past aesthetics and sounds that feel comfortable and are revived as we cannot escape the ideas of old. Retro sportswear anyone?

The juxposing of these two contrasting nouns gives a sense of equilibrium to the phrase acid communism. The first refers to the flower-power counterculture of the 70s, bringing the Beatles’ Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds to mind, and the latter often being associated with dull concrete blocks of flats, empty shelves and furry russian hats. The phrase, from which Fisher got from an interview with David Tennant on his role playing anti-psychiatry psychiatrist R D Laing, has many interpretations. Sadly it doesn’t include hallucinations or dance music (I suppose it could if we wanted it to). The whole purpose of this approach, according to long term collaborator Jeremy Gilbert, is to regain the feeling of the counterculture from the 70s, something that Fisher felt was often overlooked when the era is talked about. But taken further by others like Xenogothic and Plan C, acid communism is a jump over the normal confides of common sense and political norms. A belief in change, building a better future and that things cannot only improve but also that they change for the better for everyone. Not a new fashioned political party but a return to the commons. A Deleuzian shuffle. 

But before we do here is Mark’s description:

Acid Communism is the name I have given to this spectre. The concept of acid communism is a provocation and a promise. It is a joke of sorts, but one with very serious purpose. It points to something that, at one point, seemed inevitable, but which now appears impossible: the convergence of class consciousness, socialist-feminist consciousness-raising and psychedelic consciousness, the fusion of new social movements with a communist project, an unprecedented aestheticisation of everyday life.

Acid communism both refers to actual historical developments and to a virtual confluence that has not yet come together in actuality. Potentials exert influence with-out being actualised. Actual social formations are shaped by the potential formations whose actualisation they seek to impede. 

The impress of “a world which could be free” can be detected in the very structures of a capitalist realist world which makes freedom impossible.

The late cultural critic Ellen Willis said that the transformations imagined by the counterculture would have required “a social and psychic revolution of almost inconceivable magnitude”.  It’s very difficult, in our more deflated times, to re-create the counterculture’s confidence that such a “social and psychic revolution” could not only happen, but was already in the process of unfolding. But we need now to return to a time when the prospect of universal liberation seemed imminent.

Did 15M get there first and how does acid communism apply to Spain. 

‘Universal liberation seemed imminent’ does this sum up 15M? Maybe not universal but in Spain? 

I cannot tell you the answer to that as I wasn’t here. I lived in London before moving to Spain and met many Spaniards there, from doctors and bankers to people working in Decathlon or behind bars, many of them chose to seek better economic opportunities abroad because of the crash. I eventually settled here in Madrid in 2016 having been a regular visitor before. It’s clear that 2011 was a turning point for many on both sides of the political spectrum and I have certainly seen the aftermath of it.

15M (15th May) was a social movement in Spain in 2011. Preceding this event, the Arab Spring had also erupted along with Iceland’s response to the crisis by jailing the bankers that played a part in the financial crash of 2008. These were both highly influential. Around 2010,  the discontent continued to grow because of the financial crash and how it had been managed. The PSOE (Spanish Socialist Workers Party, a third-way party and main left of centre bloc) led government of Jose Luis Zapatero had pushed through unpopular labour reforms as a part of proposed austerity measures. Furthermore, there had been a number of corruption scandals involving both parties in Spain’s bi-partisan system the PSOE and PP (Peoples’ Party, right wing bloc vote). But, this didn’t just involve the two parties; it spread to other political parties, construction companies, business men, banks and later the royal family. By 2011, a number of civil society groups, including Democracia Real Ya! and Youth without a future, had been set up on Facebook and in major cities. The 15th May started out as a multipurpose protest for a more participatory democracy, better human dignity and against corrupt politicians. In prior weeks there had been protests against unemployment, increasing university tuition fees and public service cuts. Later that day after the protest a group of around 90 people camped out in Puerta del Sol, the madrileño equivalent to Trafalgar Square. Their camp was removed by riot police on the 16th. By the 17th 10,000 Spaniards of all ages and persuasions had gone to Sol. On the same day around 50 camps were set up around Spain in nearly every single major city, often in their main plaza. 

Camp Sol as it was named was the main attraction. 1000’s slept there in tents and sleeping bags in the open air. Older people could be seen teaching the young how to cook, and others were organising and working in a form of horizontal organisation. Cleaning rotas, healthcare, food and drink and workshops were all in situ in the camp. People used whatever they could to build shelters and spaces to carry out their activities. Feminist groups, groups campaigning against evictions, youth groups and some political inspired groups all worked together to create a micro society at the heart of Spain capital city. It has been described as a laboratory for democracy with various clusters of people experimenting and talking about the limits of Spanish society and how they would overcome them. A manifesto was produced which included open lists for elections  (as opposed to closed lists produced by parties), a more direct and participative form of democracy; a true separation of the church from the state; a reform of politicians’ salaries for life; reform of the banking sector and taxation; and meeting basic human rights such as the right to a home, universal health care and freedom of movement. 

Anarchists build these kinds of things all the time so why was this different? Democracy. These groups practiced a form of direct democracy that was later adjusted and spread outside of the camps. On the 22nd May there were town hall elections in Spain, the governing PSOE lost just over 2,200 seats whilst the conservative PP gained over 3,000. Whilst camp activities slowed down after this date, many would continue till around the middle of June. However their message was we are not leaving, we are spreading. And that they did. 

At the end of May people nominated themselves to organise popular assemblies outside of Madrid and in other cities and towns. They convened the Madrid popular assembly, where other groups from around the capital would send representatives. RTVE, the national broadcaster, estimates that between 6.5 and 8 million people participated in one of the 450 assemblies throughout Spain. There were various different levels of self-governance and organization, with many different initiatives being carried out. This included creating commissions related to education and health. Here people could share their views, reflect on what had been said and educate others about ongoing problems in other parts of society.

As I previously said, acid communism has become a term of speculation for much of the left since Fisher’s death in 2017. In his introduction he talks about deflated consciousness as a result of capitalism realism and the need to examine and combat this. Plan C and ACFM have gone on to explore this further by using consciousness-raising groups as a way to increase and build class consciousness in a time of the hyper individual. These groups where people share out loud common topics shows that it is not just an individualist problem but a societal one.  This practice was common in second-wave feminist groups from the 1970s. This is also very similar to the format of the popular assemblies from 15M and the effect they had on those that went to the events. 

Consciousness-raising has a two fold function. Firstly it is used to help highlight that individual views of problems are often shared, and that you are not alone. It shows that many issues are  indeed structural and affect many others rather than just the individual as neoliberal ideology has led many to believe. Things such as low pay; racism; ablism; addiction to gambling and narcotics; crap contracts and poor housing. The second function is expanding our definition of what is considered working class and make more people identify with this particular relationship to society. By sharing problems we come to see that we have more in common than we think and our idea of what class is expands via our discovery and sharing of collective problems and solutions.

Replicating the feminist groups that invented this method, intentionally or not, the idea is that people see and hear what they have in common. This stops the problem being an individual one and opens the eyes of the people speaking and listening to show that they are not alone. In the 70’s these groups were normally once a week in someone’s living room with a predetermined topic and it was women only. After raising their consciousness of the issues, the participants would be more motivated and have a better view on how to tackle the issues together. They would eventually find collective solutions. In Spain this came in various forms and has completely transformed the landscape of the previous bipartisan political environment. 

One of the initial successes was spreading the assemblies beyond the original campsites. I think it’s safe to say that these assemblies would be the starting point for multiple municipal platforms that would go on to win control of many town halls in the future including Barcelona and Madrid. These municipalist platforms function differently to political parties as they are normally a coalition of like-minded activists (often members of parties or social groups) that wish to keep some distance from the national political organizations to offer a form of localism. They accomplished great things that continue to play a small part in today’s  local politics. 

Another success of 15M was the ability for similar civil society groups to connect and network, not only in cities, but throughout the whole country. Many of these groups such as immigrant cultural groups and mutual aid schemes have maintained contact and have worked together at times. This was most noticeable during the 2020 lockdown during the first part of the coronavirus pandemic. 15M has stitched together and strengthened much of civil society that for years has been coming apart due to the construction of more individualistic neighbourhoods and the further erosion of social ties.  Another example, as Cristina Flesher Fominaya said in my interview with her, is that feminist groups all over Madrid were able to make contact, form bigger groups and coordinate their efforts. This arguably led to the huge support and organisational achivements of the 8M groups and International Women’s Day and the current wave of feminism spreading through Spain. 

Furthermore, as Vicente Rubio-Pueyo pointed out in my interview with him, the feminisation of politics has been a huge thing for the previously male dominated Spanish politics. Now, not only are there more women in politics and on the front line but issues affecting women are taken more seriously than before. In fact, 15M has been criticised for not being feminst enough. 

The third important aspect of acid communism is the psychedelic function which the word acid represents. This does not necessarily involve taking psychoactive substances but is more like opening up the mind to think about what is really possible. Expanding your mind so much that you look beyond the current ideological horizons.  An example given by Plan C is that of The Beatles. With the tracks being played backwards; Indian sitars being played and their mind expanding lyrics about an Octopus’ Garden and Yellow Submarine, this gave others permission to think outside the realms of possibility in the music world. To think beyond capitalism realism and the old practices of the past and those lost futures.

There are various parts of 15M that replicate this sort of Deleuzian summersalt into different spheres to challenge people’s thinking. From the digital party to municipalist politics, but the most obvious is Podemos. The purple party that originated in Madrid started out as neither ‘left nor right’. Whilst not a direct expression of 15M, you could argue it is a consequence of it. The political party burst open the gates to the Cortes and whilst their storming of heaven hasn’t delivered what they had hoped, it has given Spanish politics a new lease of life. One prominent Spanish politician said that if 15M, or the Indignados as they are commonly called, wanted to change things then they should form a party. So they did. 

Here is the problem with capitalism realism. Just as you start to break through the ideological veil that is covering up the system it starts to come back together again. I see acid communism as a method of consciousness raising. I think one of the red flags that came up with 15M was that it was what you might call an Event In the philosophical sense. An Event that is not anticipated and that has huge effects on the subjects witnessing it, whether they be good or bad effects depends upon how people react to it. Obviously with a huge boost towards the progressive end of Spanish Society; these assemblies allowed many people to raise their consciousness and participate in activities that would change the political landscape for the first time since the transition to democracy in the late 70s. Yet, by being sucked into the apparatus of liberal democracy, capitalism realism began to redefine the possibilities on the horizon and restart the process of consciousness deflation again. Now that is not saying that Podemos ruined what was possible. In fact, they have revived the left and given political spaces to people to fight for their rights and to transform society. But this does give us the question: how can we raise consciousness in civil society, and maintain it for a significant amount of time to demand change, without getting dragged into institutional politics? This is the million dollar question for many movements but one that I think is worth pondering when we put it into the context of the Spanish left and acid communism.

(and before you answer populism, that is coming in a future post)

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