Holland, July 31
I know you have been dying for news about the Spanish Revolution.
Well, me too.
So I have tried to contact some of my comrades over there and they gave me their view of the situation on the ground.
I cut up their dispatches, translated them, and patched them together to make a coherent account out of it. All sources, A,B,C and D, remain anonymous. I will just say that it comes from Communication Sol, Agora Radio, the Intelligence Commission and the Central Committee of the March on Brussels.
Spanish original down below.
A – “The country is going to hell. They bail us out economically, Greek style, but don’t believe what the newspapers say, it’s hardcore all the same. After the 15M anniversary in May the movement lost a bit of intensity. But then came the miners, they began their war in Asturias in the north, complete with homemade bazookas and Bengal fire. They came marching to Madrid.”
B – “The 19J demonstration was incredibly big! The biggest of the past 8 or 9 years. The streets were packed almost from Atocha to Sol. Everyone was there: firefighters, doctors, policemen, students, anarchists, communists, leftists and rightists … Very exciting!”
A – “So there were also police officers (even riot police) in the demonstration, calling for their colleagues to “disobey” by not writing fines and such. But hey, when they are called upon to use their clubs, they will. On Thursday July 19 Lavapiés became a war zone, with containers burning all around the hood and neighbours yelling at the police (they even threw pots…). In turn, the cops went smashing all over the place.”
C – “If you saw any disturbance, it’s a small isolated case of some idiots who don’t know what peaceful struggle is, or some gorillas with helmets and shields thinking with their billy clubs.”
A – “Almost 100 injured and 15 arrested in one of the demonstrations. And when [the miners] left (with controversy, because they are supported and organized by the two major unions, UGT and CCOO) all the rest took off. Basically, they have taken away the public workers’ extra pay for Christmas, they will eliminate 30% of (elected) councilors and their functions will be taken over by the provinces (which are not democratically elected, but appointed by the regional governments). And the straw that broke the camel’s back was the increase in VAT (value added tax, which you have to pay on almost every product), to 21%.”
C – “On Saturday the March of the Unemployed arrived.”
D – “… I was at the reception, helping. We sang to them at their arrival with the Solfónica (the 15M orchestra). It was very exciting, we sang “Los cuatro muleros“, a poem by Garcia Lorca, and l’estaca by Lluis Llach. Someone recited a poem by Miguel Hernández, a people’s poet, and we also sang in Italian. Nabucco by Verdi, and Les Miserables.”
B – “Maybe this week there will be a complete bail-out. Then it won’t be unlikely for the government to fall in a matter of weeks or months to be replaced by a technocrat government, or for early elections to be held. Disobedience campaigns are sprouting up in health care (doctors continuing to attend to illegal immigrants), police (some of them will not write fines) and even judicial officers (who refuse to sign evictions). A new space has been liberated in Lavapies (like the one in Navarino), some students plan to occupy their school on Wednesday, and in September students want to go on strike indefinitely. There is also talk of a general strike. And much more. Already we aren’t always the same people in the demonstrations, there are many different faces, you can tell that some of them haven’t been to a lot of demonstrations before.”
A – “So, with the economy in tatters, the banks being bailed out, the civil servants and the general public joining the protests in the streets, an unemployment rate that doesn’t stop growing, the risk premium and the debt crisis through the roof, and the fact that certain groups such as miners and firefighters are becoming very radical, well… the government is shocked out of its wits.”
B – “I don’t know what’s going to happen around here the next few weeks, it depends on many things, but we’re definitely in for a very, very hot fall.”
C – “A general strike has been called for in September, and there is also an initiative to take parliament, but it’s not really clear to me where this proposal comes from.”
A – “Spain is going to hell mate, and with a bit of luck, she’s only waking up ;)”
A – “El país se va a la mierda. Nos rescatan económicamente, estilo griego (no creas lo que dicen los periódicos, es igual de hardcore). Tras el 12M15M, aniversario del 15M en mayo, el movimiento bajó un poco de intensidad. Pero entonces llegaron los mineros, y empezaron su guerra en Asturias, en el norte (con bazookas caseros de bengalas incluidos) y vinieron en marcha a Madrid.”
B – “¡La manifestación del 19J fue increíblemente grande! La mayor desde hace 8 o 9 años. Desde casi Atocha hasta Sol lleno de gente. Estaba todo el mundo: bomberos, médicos, policías, estudiantes, anarquistas, comunistas, gente de izquierdas y de derechas… ¡Muy emocionante!”
A – “Hasta había policías (incluso antidisturbios) en la manifestación (…) llamando a “desobedecer” no poniendo multas y cosas así. Pero vamos, que cuando toca dar hostias y palos, siguen dándolos. El mismo jueves 19J Lavapiés se convirtió en zona de guerra, con contenedores ardiendo en todo el barrio, y los vecinos gritando a la policía (incluso les tiraron macetas…). Y estos repartiendo hostias por el barrio.”
C – “Si has visto algún disturbio es un pequeño caso aislado de algún estúpido que no sabe lo que es la lucha pacifica o algunos gorilas con casco y escudo pensando con la porra.”
A – “Casi 100 heridos y unos 15 detenidos en una de las manifestaciones. Y cuando se fueron [los mineros] (con polémica, porque están apoyados y organizados por los dos grandes sindicatos, UGT y CCOO) empezó el resto. Básicamente a los trabajadores públicos les han quitado la paga extra de navidad, van a eliminar un 30% de concejales (elegidos en elecciones) y sus funciones las van a asumir las provincias (cargos a dedo, las provincias no se eligen, salen de los gobiernos autómicos). Y la gota que colmó el vaso fue la subida del IVA (impuesto del valor añadido, lo tiene casi todo producto), al 21%.”
C – “El sábado llegaron los caminantes de la marcha de parados.”
D – “…estuve en la acogida, ayudando, les cantamos a la llegada con la Solfónica (que es la orquesta de música del 15M). […] Fue muy emocionante, cantamos “Los cuatro muleros” un poema de García Lorca, L´estaca de Lluis Llach, se recito un poema de Miguel Hernández, poeta del pueblo, también cantamos en italiano, jeje Nabucco de Verdi, y los Miserables.”
B – “Es posible que esta semana se anuncie un rescate total. Y no sería tan raro que cayera el gobierno dentro de unas semanas o meses, y pusieran a un tecnocrata, un gobierno de concentración nacional o elecciones anticipadas. Se están creando campañas de desobediencia en medicina (médicos que seguirán atendiendo a inmigrantes ilegales), policías (algunos no pondrán multas) e incluso en funcionarios judiciales (para que no firmen desahucios). Se ha liberado un nuevo espacio en Lavapies (como el de Navarino), unos estudiantes quieren ocupar su insituto el miércoles, y en septiembre quieren hacer huelga indefinida en educación y se habla también de huelga general. Y muchas más cosas. Y no somos siempre los mismos en las manifestaciones, hay muchos distintos, algunos se les nota que no han ido a muchas.”
A – “En fin, que con la economía por los suelos, el rescate bancario, el hecho de que los funcionarios y gente en general se suma a las protestas en la calle, el paro que no para de crecer, la prima de riesgo y la crisis de la deuda por las nubes y que determinados colectivos como los mineros y los bomberos están muy radicalizados, pues… el gobierno está acojonado.”
B – “No se saber bien que va a pasar por aquí las próximas semanas, depende de muchos factores, pero lo que sí es seguro es que nos espera un otoño muy, muy caliente.”
C – “Para septiembre han convocado una huelga general y hay una iniciativa de tomar el congreso pero no tengo muy claro de donde surge esa propuesta.”
A – “España se va a la mierda compañero, y con un poco de suerte, igual despierta ;)”
The last time I was in Holland it was autumn, and occupation fever had broken out. In no other country, except for the United States and Spain, so many squares were taken in so many towns and villages.
I was amazed. I visited occupations in Amsterdam, The Hague, Utrecht, Rotterdam, Tilburg, Eindhoven. And in my native town of Dordrecht of course.
I felt the blind enthusiasm of a blossoming revolutionary movement, the great feeling that the rules of the game have changed and that everything can be possible. But with a difference. I didn’t get carried away by it this time, because I had seen it all before in Spain. I knew that sooner or later the enthusiasm would inexorably consume itself, and reality would return like the sun after a night of fiesta.
Since then, the rains have come, and the snow. Christmas came by, and new year’s eve. Spring was late, and even though it’s July by now, summer in Holland has only started last week.
During all this time, many of the occupations resisted. But as the long dark season wore on their numbers dwindled, not so much because of the weather, but because of internal turmoil and growing impatience from the authorities.
When I came back, a fortnight ago, the occupations in The Hague and Utrecht still resisted. The remainders of Occupy Amsterdam had been cleared by the police in March.
“Wow,” I thought, “they are still here. I have to pay them a visit soon.”
Next day Occupy Utrecht folded their last tent, and the day after also Occupy Den Haag finally surrendered. It was too late for me to say goodbye. The camps had become a magnet for drug addicts, outcasts and homeless. The few brave indignados who had resisted were finally outnumbered. They didn’t feel safe any more, and they abandoned the square.
So the occupations in Holland withered away, and the image they left is one of a naive bunch of protesters with no clear ideas on any subject, and of shabby downtown campings, potentially dangerous and smelling of dope and alcohol.
Last year, when the general assembly of Puerta del Sol decided to lift the acampada after four weeks of occupation, someone asked me if I agreed. At the time, I didn’t answer. But now, with sufficient hindsight, I can say it was the right decision.
Nevertheless, the Dutch occupations resisted a harsh winter and two of them lasted for almost nine months. It’s a remarkable feat.
I step off the train in Eindhoven. For me this is another little piece of home. And a most interesting place it is. Many western cities have become what they are today because of the multinationals they spawned. Turin and Fiat, Atlanta and Coca-Cola, Detroit and General Motors. But few cities have been so intimately linked to a company as Eindhoven is to Philips.
Quite literally, Philips built this city. So allow me to take you on an infomercial tour to a corner of the Netherlands that proudly presents itself as ‘the smartest region of Europe’. Don’t worry, there is a point to all this. You will see.
It all started off with a good idea. A light bulb, so to speak. It had been the result of many decades of research and the final ‘invention’ is usually credited to Thomas Alva Edison.
If modern copyright custom were in vigour at the time, each of those small advances would have been rigourously patented, and Edison would never have been allowed to create his light bulb.
But the good idea traveled fast and far. In a small village in Brabant, two brothers took it up and started constructing their own bulbs in a country shed. Today, the Philips brothers would be considered pirates, they would be sued out of business by Edison. But back in the closing years of the 19th century the Philips family had no trouble starting up their business, because American patents were not applicable under Dutch legislation.
Without ‘pirates’ like Anton and Gerard Philips, Eindhoven would never have turned from a sleepy Brabant village to the ‘smartest region of Europe’.
So first came the factory, then came the city. Cozy little houses for the blue-collar workers, spacy villas for the management, facilities, parks, swimming pools, sportsclubs etc. Soon the village of Eindhoven swallowed the five villages around her to form a curious star-shaped agglomeration.
During the Great Depression, a company orchard was planted on the outskirts of the city. It was one of many employment projects of the age. Because in the 1930s the reigning economic philosophy on how to counter the crisis was quite the opposite of today’s. More government spending, instead of harsh austerity measures.
The unemployed labour force was harnassed to build works for public use. It caused the debt to increase, but this way the workers would have money to spend. And money needs to keep rolling. As long as it does, so economic guru John Keynes predicted, the economy would continue to grow.
Unfortunately, in the midst of rising political tensions and visceral demagogy, the economic crisis spiraled down to a devastating world war.
The Philips brothers evacuated themselves and many of their directors to the United States and took most of the company’s capital with them. The factories continued to operate under German supervision during the war, and the Philips orchard proved to be very useful. In times of shortages the apples were used to make the infamous rations of Philiprak (‘Philips mash’).
After the war, Philips pioneered its way into various branches of consumer electronics (with mixed results) and Eindhoven continued to be at the center of its global web. But by the end of the century the relationship between the company and the city was radically changing as a result of globalisation.
Manufacturing had been outsourced to low-wage countries, the monumental old factories were being given new residential or commercial use. The city reinvented itself as a place of design and high-tech R&D.
In the midst of this great makeover, the Philips orchard still exists. We had family lunch there the other day. You can eat pancakes with apples straight from the garden. It holds thousands of trees, neatly planted the Dutch way, making maximum use of minimum space. It’s an experimental ground for students of the agrarian university of Wageningen for research into biological ways of extensive farming.
I take a quiet walk there. When the harvesting season comes you can pick as many apples as you can carry for a small fee. And me, I wonder about the whole revolution/evolution issue.
It’s true that many things are very wrong with our way of life, and getting worse. But in a broad perspective, many other things are definitely getting better. So maybe change is happening, very slowly. It’s a matter of economy, sure, but it’s also a matter of social and moral acceptability.
Maybe we will do away with chemical agriculture and industrial animal exploitation. Not only because in the long run it’s unsustainable and unhealthy, but also because people will convince themselves that it’s no longer acceptable.
For ages, until not so long ago, the institution of slavery has been morally acceptable. It was finally abolished not in the least because people became aware that it was wrong. The same thing eventually happened with child labour, with the legal inequality between men and women, between whites and blacks, between gay and straight.
So why shouldn’t this moral awareness slowly extend to the treatment of animals and the earth itself? I have a feeling it’s already happening right now.
Or maybe not. Social awareness doesn’t come by itself. You have to keep pushing it. That’s why it’s a good thing to be a revolutionary, to keep demanding the impossible, always.
In case we don’t succeed, we will at least have shaken things up. Ideas will take root, and with a bit of good luck, history will prove them right.
Dordrecht, July 12
From Florence I kept traveling northward by local train. Every time it’s harder to find them. Local trains are growing scarce.
Because of European legislation, the Italian state railways have been dismembered in various layers of subsidiary companies, all of which are still controlled by the state. There is one for the management of the tracks, one for the operation of the trains, one for the exploitation of the big stations, one for the mediums stations, and various for maintenance, security etc.
Private capital has taken over forty percent of the companies running the stations. In the last few decades a lot of money has been invested to give all the major railway terminals a complete overhaul, so as to turn them into shopping malls.
All the Italian stations used to have drinking fountains. What the overhaul practically came down to is that they closed the water as an incentive for you to buy it in a plastic bottle from one of the vendor machines. It makes me incredibly sad.
In recent years the railroads have started to cut local trains to ‘convince’ people to travel by freccia – ‘arrow’- the high speed trains that connect all of Italy from Milan to Naples. It’s three times as fast and more than three times as expensive. There are high speed trains departing from all the big cities all day long, but just two local trains connecting Rome to Florence.
Many of the high speed trains only carry a few dozen passengers. The remaining local trains are generally cramped.
I was lucky this time. It was the hour of siesta and not many people were traveling on board the regional train to Milan. I was snoozing a bit after a short night on the docks in Venice, content to have caught the slow train. I’m not in a hurry. Then from Lake Garda onward the carnival started. In six, seven, eight, they invaded the coach and planted themselves all around me. Political activists. Loud political activists.
I pretended to sleep. “How can you sleep with all this noise? Har! Har! Har!”
“I can’t. I’m pretending.” I opened an eye to spy around for clues about their political colour.
They couldn’t have been members of the Lega Nord, the xenofobe regionalists, because their supporters have been forced to lower their voices lately. For twenty years the Lega has accused the government of being a big bloodsucking thief, and now it has turned out that the governing Lega has been as corrupt as any other political party before them.
The loud people on the train don’t look like old fashioned lefties either. They lack seriousness. They are having fun, making jokes. A button worn by one of them betrays them. They are grillini, members of the Five Star Movement.
We had already encountered them on the march, in Terracina. They are friends. I ask where they are going.
To Milan. There is a protest against the ‘satrap’ of Lombardy, who has been running the region for twenty years. A few years ago he changed the law so that he could stay in office, and every year the Five Star Movement stages a protest to say that he should pack his bags and leave.
During the march I described the grillini as a type of ‘proto-indignados’. They had started to reclaim their democracy over a year before the Arab spring began, inspired through the web by comedian Beppe Grillo.
Grillo is something like a guru who acts like a clown. He doesn’t enter in discussion with politicians. He makes fun of them. He exposes them for what they are. Petty little crooks, in most cases.
His idea is that we don’t need politicians at all. We don’t need a caste of incompetent parasites. We can do politics ourselves, starting at home, in our neighbourhood, our towns, all united into a movement through the internet.
The homebase of the movement is Grillo’s daily weblog. They say it’s 6th most visited blog in the world, with about 2,5 million hits daily. That would be about as much as all the copies of Italy’s three largest newspapers put together.
Grillo’s virtual pulpit and his daily comic sermons are a point of reference, but the movement itself is built up of locally organised branches. When the train stops at the next station, the comrades from Brescia are welcomed into the family with laughs and embraces.
What the local branches have in common are the five stars (public water, connectivity, development, transport and environment), plus certain rules on political representation, like ‘No convicted fellon should run for office’ and ‘No-one should be allowed to stay in office for more than two terms.’
This means that Grillo himself cannot run for office. He has been convicted of involuntary manslaughter after causing a traffic accident years ago.
In recent local elections the movement keeps growing fast. Apart from supplying numerous city councilor’s all over the country, they have also conquered one of the big cities, Parma.
The policy of each branch of the movement is decided by the members. Any elected councilor or mayor is tied to this policy. He cannot take decisions on his own. Elected members only accept a reasonable retribution, which amounts to a fraction of the salaries that Italian politicians normally grant themselves. All the rest goes into community development.
“So, you are trying to change things the institutional way?” I ask.
“We don’t know yet. Our movement is only two and a half years old. We still have to learn how we can change society. We will see.”
According to many activists, the core of the problem is not politics, it’s the economy. In many places in Italy the people of the Five Star Movement are thinking about an alternative economy based on local products and barter. Some people even want to facilitate this local economy by introducing their own currency, free of interest. Now that sounds pretty revolutionary to me.
“It doesn’t really matter how we make a change, as long as we do, and as long we do it peacefully.”
The train arrives in Milan. The grillini move to the city center. What I noticed is that they have copied Beppe Grillo’s satiric way of talking about politicians. They don’t take them seriously any more. They don’t want anything from them, except that they go home. Politicians are dinosaurs, remnants of an old style of politics. The members of the Five Star Movement have already evolved to another level. With childlike enthusiasm they have started to shape a new way of politics together.
Tuscany, July 4
So I did make it out of Athens in the end. In choosing between the four cardinal directions, I opted for West. Back to Italy. Because great is the pleasure to discover new lands, but equally great is the pleasure to return to certain places and visit people you have known, for Auld Lang Syne.
The connections in Greece are not optimal, and deteriorating fast. To get from Athens to the country’s third largest city Patras I had to take two trains and one bus. But still, it took less time than walking.
As we drove along the Gulf of Corinth I recognised the shores on the other side. The Gulf of Itea, Eratini, Marathias, Nafpaktos… Two weeks of marching in a couple of hours. I could have taken an aeroplane and be in Holland by now. But I had discarded that possibility from the start. After having spent months to cross the continent it seemed ridiculous to return almost instantaneously.
In Patras I met up with two friends who had received us when we entered the town nearly three months ago. It was only now that I realised the impact we have made. All along the way, people have opened their hearts. And they haven’t forgotten us. Some of us, and many locals, will argue that our march didn’t make any sense. But it did. It has been more than worth it, because it has given us the opportunity to meet these extraordinary persons. If there is still hope for Greece, it’s thanks to them.
At sunset I sailed. And yet again, I recognised every single hill, every single cape on the other side. Antirio, Ano Vassiliki, the lagoon of Mesolonghi. Then darkness.
In Bari, one of the first things I thought, was: ‘Wow, Italy isn’t doing so bad.’ Bars were full, and hardly any of the shops had gone bankrupt. No visual signs of crisis at all.
Sure, the crisis exists. I had a long chat with a lady from Salerno, belonging to the ‘upper middle class’. Her family possesses various houses and pieces of land, but as a result of recent austerity measures by the Monti government they are being choked by the taxes. ‘The middle class is disappearing’, she said. ‘Everything we have built up over the years, to leave to our children, is at risk.’
During the march I realised that you don’t need much to thrive and survive. All the rest is luxury. For now, the crisis is cutting into those luxuries. The basic necessities of existence are not at risk yet, not in Italy. Maybe in Greece.
By now I have reached Tuscany, one of those places that I have good reason to consider ‘home’. I’m here to visit friends, ‘anarchist’ friends. After one and a half months in Exarchia, it was about time that I met some real anarchists.
In Exarchia people live in the same appartment blocks as elsewhere, they use the same currency, they drink the same instant coffee in plastic cups as the rest of Greeks. And as far as I have been able to ascertain, only one of the bars serves fair-trade coffee from Chapas. All the rest goes to enrich the multinationals.
“Stupid is as stupid does,” is what Forrest Gump’s mamma always says. And you can apply that to almost anything. “Anarchist is as anarchist does,” I would say. And change surely won’t come from Exarchia. To some of the people there the only solution is to ‘bomb Greece back to the stone age’.
One of my friends here in Tuscany has retreated from modern society over twenty-five years ago. When the Berlin Wall came down, he didn’t even notice. He was much too busy working the land, raising a family and creating an almost completely self-sufficient farm in a distant river valley. He has worked every day of the week, every week of the year, ever since. And he was happy to do so. Only recently, now that his children have grown up, he has granted himself the luxury of a holiday. Two months, on foot, to Sicily and back.
But even without such radical measures, it’s possible to start a change. And you don’t need bombs to succeed. Another friend of mine is slowly evolving away from society. He used to work for General Electric. When he got to know the company and realised that he was actively upholding a system which he despised, he changed life and opened a biological restaurant. When it turned out that he didn’t have any time for himself anymore he sold the restaurant and changed life again. Now he lives in the country side and works as a gardener.
In practice, all of Tuscany is one big garden, so there is no lack of work. He grows his own vegetables. He makes his own furniture. He doesn’t need much, and most of what he does need is available through a short supply chain of local organic products. In this, Tuscany is at the cutting edge of change.
My anarchist friends here are not the only ones. It’s starting to become fashionable, not only among rich Germans, Dutch and English to go live in the beautiful countryside, but also among Italians. They want to have their own vegetable garden, they want to have silence around. They have had it with city life.
Within the movement there has been a discussion from the start about whether we want a ‘revolution’, or an ‘evolution’. As for me, it sounds a lot cooler to call myself a ‘revolutionary’ than an ‘evolutionary’. People might think the discussion is about darwinism. But then again, “stupid is as stupid does”…