Last month and over the next two months of themutation.com we will be presenting interviews with activists from three social centres from the Barcelona area and Madrid: El Ateneu Candela in Terressa, Exit in Barcelona and Centro Social Seco in Madrid. All three, in different ways, are concerned with reworking the politics of autonomous social centres. Last month the interview was from El Ateneu Candela in Terressa outside Barcelona. This month it’s from the Centro Social SECO in Madrid
What’s most remarkable about these projects is their ability to recognise the exhaustion of the classic forms of radical organising while insisting that the urgency of transforming capitalism is as clear as ever. How do we create new forms of resistance, of organisation and of intervention that can deliver social change in today’s world? This is the question several social centres across Spain have been asking over the last decade or so, and have been answering through a series of political experiments. They’ve sought to explore the potentials of social centres, not just as a resource for movements or as an alternative cultural space, but as a key weapon in combating advanced capitalism. They wanted to reinvent the social centre for the 21st century.
But this desire immediately brought into focus some of the limitations of the squatted social centre model prevalent in Spain in the 80s and 90s. The price of squatting (evictions, conflict with the police, legal trials) often preculed a stable political project capable of transforming the city. Social centres are always going to have a relationship with the authorities and with the institutions of power. The question was, how to change this relationship into one which works for social movements rather than against them? How can we change this situation into one which opens up the possibility for politics rather than drowning that very possibility under an avalanche of legal processes and evictions. The social centres discussed here have all confronted and attempted to overcome this problem. In two cases by pressuring the city council into granting them a permenant self-managed space and in one case by renting, these social centres have achieved the creation of more permanent and open ‘citizen controlled public spaces’.
A further limitation that characterised the squat movement was the inability to intervene in their area and, as a consequence, ghettoisation and isolation from social conflicts. This was partly a result of state repression and partly due to an identitarian aesthetic code and a preoccupation with political issues which were unrelated to the problems faced by those around them. Inspired by the Zapatistas and the alter-globalisation slogan ‘act local, think global’, the social centres interviewed here recognised the need to create a new form of organisation which would open the social centre to the world around it. In doing so they’ve created spaces for the cross-contamination of different communities, the de-individualisation of social problems, and the creation of hybrid political movements capable of responding to the complexity of contemporary capitalism.
Central to this has been the development of Social Rights Centres . SRCs become a hub of social conflicts by providing information and support in relation to issues like housing, migration and precarious work; in them you meet an array of people from all over the world and confronting a variety of forms of oppression and exclusion; precarious workers, undocumented and documented migrants, or people who can’t access decent housing. More importantly, they act as a machine for the formation of communities of resistance which can respond to the problems they face and achieve concrete victories. These issues represent some of the most significant conflicts in our political present, which is why it’s vital for social movements to find ways of inserting themselves into these conflicts. The question is, how? And this question can only be answered through political experimentation: through a recognition of the redundancy of the old ways and an ability to create new ones.
Seco Social Centre, Madrid: There’ll never be a neighbourhood without us!
Seco, in the Vallecas area of Madrid, is one of the oldest social centres in Madrid, beginning as a squat in 1991. Since then they’ve been through a threatened eviction, campaigned against a planned ‘regeneration’ of the neighbourhood, negotiated a new space with the city council, and developed a series of innovative projects for combating precarity, as Bea explains below.
The Seco collective and friends outside the Social Centre during Carnaval
Mick: Seco is one of the oldest social centres in the Spanish state; can you tell me a little bit about the project’s history?
Bea: The Social Centre began with the squatting of a school on a street called Seco in Madrid in 1991. In the 90s squatted social centres were spaces for autonomous collectives, and Seco was run by, among others, Vallekas Zona Roja (VZR ). Following the Zapatista insurrection as well as debates around the exhaustion of the Lucha Autonoma model , many groups began criticising the self-referential ‘squatter’ identity, which, it was argued, was characterised by an aesthetic style and a form of politics which, in many cases, made impossible any kind of communication with other people and thus created a political ghetto. People involved in VZR participated in these discussions and decided to join AAVV Los Pinos-Retiro Sur (an association whose background was in the neighbourhood level struggles of the 80s) and to call on other collectives in the area to create a local network.
M: How and why did you decide to negotiate with the city council in order to get the building you have today?
B: In the Adelfas neighbourhood, the area where Seco is, there was an urban plan which would have meant the disappearance of the neighbourhood, and as such, of the Social Centre. The people who were participating in the social centre decided not to lock themselves into the space, but rather to turn the tables and take advantage of the urban plan in order to launch a counter-plan. This counter-plan came to be called the Alternative Urban Plan (AUP). The demands included the re-housing of the local residents, the provision of a building for the Social Centre, the formation of a cooperative of young people in rented accommodation, and other improvements for the area. The AUP was taken up by the local network which was formed by the various collectives in the area.
In contrast to other squatted spaces which had not prioritised the problems of the area in which they were located, Seco wanted to make politics local. We thought that the struggle for the Social Centre to be provided with a new building could create more interesting alliances then the struggle against being evicted, and that these alliances were more important then whether or not we actually got the new building. The important thing is the path, not the destination. Our building at the time was a limitation in itself. Firstly, in terms of the time limits suffered by squats (they tend to be evicted sooner or later). Secondly, the building was in bits and wasn’t at all inviting for children or adults. Finally, the fact that the squat was illegal meant that coming in would be a risk for undocumented people (i.e. migrants). We wanted to make a space that would last and would be diverse. Managing to pressurise the city council into granting us a space would also be a legitimisation of the contribution of squatted spaces and a precedent in terms of public spaces which are independent of the state.
We identified the building we wanted, which was abandoned at the time, and we began meetings with the city council and some civil society groups. On the 5th of March 2005 we organised what we called the Pink March , a demonstration of more than 3,000 people from the area, from other collectives and form social centres in Madrid and across Spain. We debated about the negotiations in our assembly and the negotiations were undertaken under the name of AAVV Los Pinos because they were a group with a legal identity. The city council offered us half of the building we had identified, but in autumn of 2006 we got the whole building. We pay a social (reduced) rent, half of which comes from funding from Citizen Participation.
M: Doesn’t negotiating with the city council and receiving funding undermine an autonomous project?
B: The collectives that make up the Social Centre take, in the assembly, absolutely all the decisions about our projects, mobilisations, activities, alliances, time tables etc. We also have group and individual membership through which we ensure economic autonomy. At the moment we receive funding in order to pay the rent, but if we lost that we could still continue our project. So although we have a negotiated social centre, we’re fully autonomous.
M: Your slogan is ‘there’ll never be a neighbourhood without us’. Why is the local neighbourhood important for you?
B: In the political context of Spanish social centres, Seco has decided on opening up to people outside the activist community. Seco understood that in order to continue we had to escape form the ghetto and ‘contaminate’ other people with our ideas and our projects. Also, the alter- globalisation movement inspired us to get more involved in the area. ‘Think global, act local’ was a phrase which indicated that change would come from the bottom up, through a multiplication of networked nodes. Being active in a concrete context also makes it possible to create a community which is anchored in a specific place, a place in which we can share and initiate political projects in the medium term.
The focus on inserting the project in the local area has also produced interesting debates about what an ‘area’ or ‘neighbourhood’ is in the context of the contemporary city, like Madrid. There’s a diversity of opinions here. While some still have in mind the more traditional figure of the ‘neighbour’, others think that ‘new communities’, daily mobility, different life styles and so on, produce discontinuous spaces. But these are also spaces in which we can intervene politically.
One of our Zapatista-inspired slogans is ‘for a neighbourhood in which many neighbourhoods fit’, and in practice it’s like that. In each neighbourhood there are many neighbourhoods, understood as kind of communities of meaning, and they coexist in the same space. The changes in the city over recent decades mean we no longer have homogenous neighbourhoods, with people who come from the same place, with similar jobs, housing or cultural habits. This reality has been fragmented. It is said that today society is composed of ‘life styles’, of particular situations and interests rather than being a simple geographical territory. People cross the city several times a day. Property prices also work against any kind of stability in neighbourhoods. All of this dilutes any sense of belonging to a geographical neighbourhood as an important element of identity, any sense of identification with your neighbour and so on. In the case of migrants, you can also say that they are more connected to international networks or to networks made up of people from the same place or language community, rather than neighbourhood level ones. It’s also true that the problems which residents in particular neighbourhoods confront go beyond the neighbourhood level, for example work and housing.
In the context of this mobility, Social Centres become particularly interesting as they are defined precisely as a space which is stable and fixed, a kind of enclave which remains while everything else changes. For us in Seco, calling yourself a ‘neighbour’ and relating to others in terms of ‘neighbours’ is more a decision, rather than something objective or a reflection of a reality. We want to create social bonds, a social fabric, to cultivate the idea that we’re all in the same boat and we’re better off navigating together. Basically, we want to generate community.
We don’t think people come together just to come together, but in fact because of things which are important to them. In this process of coming together people get to know each other and bonds are formed. We hope to build a community which is concerned with the material conditions in which its members live and intervenes in the broader reality of the city, the state and the world. So there’s no point for us in working with anyone who just happens to be from the neighbourhood. We want to work with people who want to change things. Specifically, we focus on ‘social rights’: housing, work, culture, the body and freedom of movement. For us, the ‘neighbourhood’ is the people who want to create a network around those issues.
M: Social Centres often have difficulties in creating relationships with people from the local neighbourhood. How do you do it?
B: To answer that you have to first think about what our relationship with the local neighbourhood is. Our relationship is one of offering people in the area a point of entry into a larger network, a network of reciprocity and struggle for social rights. The social centre is a space for ideas and projects which you won’t find in the media and so on, and it’s a space for collective reflection. Our relationship is also one of co-managing a non-state public space were people can come together and consider their concerns, stop being customers and start to participate. We don’t want to fight for them or in their name, we want to fight together.
People come along to the social centre because of the resources we have developed. Resources related to fighting for social rights (like the Social Rights Centre), cultural activities (like workshops, neighbourhood parties) or the space itself with its free internet and free shop.
M: Has ‘militant research’ been useful to you in that sense?
B: Militant research has been fundamental for us. How can you intervene if you don’t know the territory, the people or the problems that exist out there? Just as importantly, it’s necessary to now how the territory is perceived by people, what their priorities are, what tools they use to survive. In order to build alliances, to elaborate discourses, decide practices and actions, information is vital. We also believe that the collective production of critical knowledge can produce shared readings of reality and as such can sustain radical practices. Hence, militant research isn’t just about generating knowledge which allows us to intervene better; it’s also about a collective reconstruction of subjectivity and of ways of understanding the world.
M: As with several other Social Centres, Seco has a Social Rights Centre (SRC). What is an SRC?
B: The Social Rights Centre is a project which has been growing over the last 5 years, in contact with other groups in Madrid and across the state and in relation to general debates about precarity, immigration, rights and the metropolis. SRCs aren’t an abstract model, their collectives which start from a reading of the needs and desires in particular places and which create a space of encounter, exchange, education and conflict. They’re spaces of encounter because individualising us and separating us is the principal strategy of the system. They’re spaces of exchange because we already have a lot of knowledge, know-how and resources, and by sharing them we multiply them. They’re spaces of education because often we don’t know the rights we already have or how to access them. And they’re spaces of conflict because with mutual support we can win battles that we can’t win alone. So SRCs are a broad project. In Seco, we want to develop 5 themes; migration, work, housing, income and reproductive rights. We want to be able to provide free legal aid for each one of these, to put on information workshops on rights (for migrants, people who are renting, precarious workers etc), to support those who are struggling for their rights in concrete cases and to share the resources we have. We also want to be a meeting point for those interested in getting to know others and working together for our rights. In this way we hope to establish, along the way, political and interpersonal networks. For the moment, conflict around migration (against the new Migration Bill and for freedom of movement) takes up nearly all our time. Our idea is that the groups of affinity and interpersonal networks that we are already creating will also serve to respond to work or housing related conflicts. In order to create that possibility, we have to first get to know each other and build trust. But in the current context of the crisis, we think it’s time to shift gears.
M: So, is it the same as an NGO?
B: The fundamental difference, for me, is that an NGO is based on the intention to help others, whereas an SRC is about fighting for our rights, with the idea that these rights belong to everyone but at the same time speaking in the first person: ‘I’m precarious’, ‘I can’t access decent housing’. We seek to create permanent networks, it’s not a job, it’s a form of life and as such the connections we want to create are political and personal, not charitable. As we say, ‘we’re not going to fight for what others want or in the name of others, we fight together’. Another difference with the majority of NGOs is that we actually want to create conflict; we don’t want to manage money and projects and so on, we want to become strong to fight together for what should belong to everyone, in an active manner. We’re looking for a change in the structures, not just that one group can access certain resources while everything else remains the same. Rather, we want to develop a radical critique of the distribution of work and wealth. We feel part of the thousands of social movements (peasants, workers, feminists, blacks, ecologists…) which have fought and which continue to fight. Noone is illegal
M: How does the SRC work?
B: Every SRC has its own spaces and practices of intervention. We have free legal aid around migration and work related conflicts. We also have Spanish language classes. We have a free shop and an email list where people exchange information, skills and so on, like info about jobs, houses or whatever. We have a hip-hop workshop and a ‘cabaret café’ every Thursday with cultural and political activities. A year ago some Moroccans involved in the SRC set up their own association (Afaq) and we work together with them in terms of protests, leafleting etc. We support people who’ve been detained by the police and we denounce police raids and attacks on rights and public services. We organize workshops on rights (migration, detentions, and workplace rights). Within the SRC there are various groups (e.g. Moroccans, Senegalese, teachers, lawyers, women’s group) and we come together once a month to discuss things which concern all of us. For example, at the moment we’re discussing how to respond to the crisis and support ourselves within the new context.
M: At the moment the economic crisis is causing radical transformation in the political landscape. Many social centres have difficulties responding to the world outside the social centre. What are you doing in Seco in relation to the crisis?
B: At the macro level, we organized a gathering last December about the crisis, to which people from all over Spain came. The objective was to understand better what was going on and start thinking about alternatives. This year in March there will be a second gathering to continue and deepen our collective proposals, for example, the demand for a universal basic income. We’ve also worked with other groups on a video called ‘Crisis, what crisis?’, which includes dozens of interviews with people from the social centre and the neighbourhoods to see what their thoughts were: who was responsible, where has all the money gone, how have we ended up here, and what can we do about it. The video has given us lots of ideas about the kinds of ideas and discourses that are out there; we tried to understand why there hasn’t been more protests or other responses considering that it’s clear that in the last decade a minority has enriched itself enormously and now there is a sense that we all have to pay.
On the micro level, we have some tools like sharing what we already have (through the email list; the free shop) and we’re going to create a ‘resistance fund’ to which people can contribute and draw on when they need it. Through the legal aid end of things we’re making sure people aren’t fired illegally and that people are able to demand their salaries and rights. However, we think that the worst has yet to come. We’re very worried that people are going to be evicted from their homes, won’t be able to pay the rent, that migrants won’t be able to renew their residency permits, that the length of time you can be on the dole will be cut etc. If this has happens, it will be necessary to set in motion more serious actions: occupations, rent strike, fighting for automatic renovation of residency permits, indefinite dole, universal basic income. What’s for certain is that the crisis has opened up a time of uncertainty. We’d like this to be the moment for strengthening are weapons, but also a point of departure in terms of generating more powerful demands which would push for a general change in the political panorama. This is what we’ll be working on over the coming years.
Web address: www.ods.cs-seco.org
394 total views, 1 today