The slow-burning revolution: building counterpower in Spain

Carlota Moreno Villar

As a researcher in the social sciences, concerned with social issues and anti-capitalist politics, you will probably not be taken too seriously when you explain that you are an anarchist. Believe me, I have seen it: the look in my professors’ eyes when I decided to write about anarchism, the expressions on my colleagues' faces… hell, you will even get weird looks from impassioned Marxists and fierce communists that desire as much as you do to get rid of capitalism. But this is all well since as an anarchist, I am not too interested in appealing to academics who believe they themselves know with certainty what the world of tomorrow should look like. I would, nonetheless, like to take this opportunity to shed light on what real-life anarchism is and to show that it is not some phantasm nor an unrealistic, outlandish proposition. I will also not waste time elaborating on why capitalism should be overthrown in the first place, because at this point, does anyone really need to be convinced that capitalism is an absurd shitshow of never-ending crises and ever-increasing inequality and exploitation?

Now, I could give you a long list of authoritative male figures who have written extensively on the topic of anarchism, but that is not how I would like to proceed. You see, although some of these thinkers no doubt offered very useful contributions to anarchist theorising, whatever that may be, anarchism itself was not invented in the late 1800s by a white, middle-aged Russian man the likes of Proudhon. Anarchism has always existed in one way or another, probably in every corner of the world. Examples such as the Paris Commune in 1871 France, or the Guangzhou City Commune in China from 1921 to 1927 come to mind. But currently, active societies also exist, including the Federation of Neighbourhood Councils-El Alto, in Bolivia, active since 1979, or the squatters movement in Barcelona since the late 1990s. So what, really, is anarchism?

We could define anarchism by reflecting on that to which it is opposed: the state, coercion, hierarchies, domination… But I find this to be a somewhat unproductive approach. I believe anarchism is best understood as a preference for certain kinds of social relations underpinned by the values of freedom and equality. That is, social relations that follow the principles of reciprocity, mutuality and solidarity. These social relations are nothing new; they have existed since the beginning of time and continue to exist to this day. Mutual support groups, cooperatives, neighbourhood assemblies, or even the open-source movement! They all exhibit properties of anarchist social relations and revolutionary praxis, and are more familiar and widespread than we think.

Anarchists, as you may have guessed, are not too fond of capitalism. And they believe another world is possible. Utopia is within reach, or at the very least, we can get much closer to it. How? Well, people tend to think that the revolution will be a sudden, cataclysmic break that will transform the world from one day to the other. Not only is this probably not desirable, it is also not realistic. For anarchists like myself, the revolution is a slow process. We must gradually build the world we want from the shell of the old, as the preamble to the constitution of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) expresses. This is what many refer to as prefigurative politics: a rejection of vanguardism, or the idea of a leading, elitist revolutionary class, and the drive to embody today the social relations of tomorrow through experimentation with radical forms of self-organisation, direct action, counter-institutions and participatory democracy. In short, building counterpower to eventually be able to face head-on the forces of capitalism.

Perhaps in this respect, we can learn most from anti-racist, self-managed groups of migrant workers in Spain, who have succeeded in creating strong communities based on mutuality, solidarity and reciprocity. The Sindicato de Manteros de Madrid is one such group. They recently opened Pantera in Madrid, a clothing store that they describe as an anti-racist political project that arose in response to the dire situation in which workers in the informal economy found themselves during the pandemic. Without any kind of assistance from the Spanish state and confronted with its repressive bureaucratic apparatus and violent migration policies that serve to criminalise non-white/non-European bodies, they began by designing and producing a series of anti-racist clothing items. The project has been a success and it has helped provide a source of income and funds to assist migrant workers. But Pantera and the Sindicato de Manteros de Madrid go beyond an example of cooperative productive relations and mutual support; they also engage in advocacy and the defence of human rights, organise community events and protests, and they are a site of resistance against capitalist, colonial violence.

Another inspiring initiative takes us to Málaga, in Andalucía, the Southern region of the Iberian peninsula and what I call the motherland. I am referring to La Medusa Colectiva, named after my favourite mythological character: the gorgon Medusa. La Medusa Colectiva is a self-managed space that opens its doors to a multitude of feminist collectives, social movements, projects and initiatives. The space advocates an intersectional perspective and the recognition of multiple subjectivities (recognising that multiple identities such as one’s race, class, gender or ability intersect to create particular experiences and patterns of oppression), and it engages in a variety of activities such as skill sharing, teaching Spanish sign language, dance lessons or organising a feminist book club. It also functions as a safe space for multidisciplinary artists in the LGBTQ+ community to share and create. All in all, it is a space for mutual support and advocacy that focuses on learning from each other, sharing resources and co-creating.

Let us also look at El Huerto del Rey Moro and La Casa Grande del Pumarejo, in another Andalusian city: Sevilla. El Huerto del Rey Moro is a self-managed space for urban agriculture which helps support sustainable local producers. It brings together people with the objective of promoting ethical consumption and production, encouraging the exchange of knowledge and ideas, and fostering tight relations within the community. They also organise events where they collaborate with a variety of other collectives and local artists or artisans, in an effort to support them.

La Casa Grande del Pumarejo is an old palace building that was rehabilitated by neighbours to host a variety of activities for the community. What many might not know is that the neighbourhood had to fight in order not to lose this cultural space to European funds. The 1994-1999 EU URBAN I initiative sought to convert the space into a luxury hotel, the latest in a string of gentrifying projects at the time, which contributed to rising prices and to pushing the neighbours further out of the city. Now it hosts talks, exhibitions, workshops and neighbourhood meetings, among other activities. It also comes with a community kitchen, a support centre for women who have been victims of gender-based violence, a library, a legal support office, a choir… and it hosts a variety of collectives, from the Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca (PAH), a collective working against forced evictions, to the Asociación de Empleadas y Empleados del Hogar, a collective that defends the rights of domestic workers.

Finally, let us also take a minute to reflect on the explosion of crowdfunding initiatives and mutual aid groups that have appeared in the past years, especially since the pandemic. What did we do when the world was - and arguably still is - on fire, and our governments neglected us to save the all-powerful markets? We relied on each other. We used our bodies to physically impede evictions, we donated our income to help chronically ill and disabled people get access to the care and treatments they need and deserve, we occupied buildings, we collected and distributed food and other necessities to those who had lost their income during the pandemic… We became anarchists in the face of adversity, organising spontaneously and without any assistance from institutions. And perhaps we ought to remain anarchists, and not just put on the suit during emergencies. Perhaps we ought to embody the social relations we need and deserve in our everyday lives, and little by little build up counterpower in the process of carrying out this slow-burning revolution.

"So what, really, is anarchism?" cover by Kateryna Kruhlyk
Pantera clothing store in Madrid 1
Pantera clothing store in Madrid 2
La Medusa Colectiva space
El Huerto del Rey Moro 1
El Huerto del Rey Moro 2
El Huerto del Rey Moro 3
La Casa Grande del Pumarejo 1, 3
La Casa Grande del Pumarejo 2