the narrative can’t hide the flames

by anekdotales


guillaume darribau


this past wednesday, during spain’s first general strike in 8 years, riots erupted in barcelona. the spectacle of the riots continues to fill spanish newspapers.  the images of a burning police vehicle, broken windows, and threatened journalists have been bought, sold, consumed and will soon be forgotten. yet for the time being politicians and the media have exploited the spectacle for their narrative of the current economic crisis, a narrative in which the affected are acted upon and not capable of acting themselves.  from the left to the right of the dominant political/social spectrum, the condemnations of barcelona’s riots have been varied, yet typical: diatribes about the permissiveness of the city government, demands for a heavy handed response, incoherent speculations about the motives and identities of the riot’s participants, and criticism of both union leaders and national politicians.   the gloomy future of growing unemployment, problems in bank solvency, and increased poverty has no place in the finger pointing and political maneuvering that guides the narrative. especially when it seems none of the ‘recovery initiatives’ are causing a recovery. the labor reforms, initiated earlier in the year by the spanish president rodriguez zapatero, were intended as austerity measures. something had to be done after the country’s s&p and fitch ratings were both lowered in january, causing alarmist comparisons with the deteriorating situation in greece.  so in the narrative the economy was streamlined; public workers saw their salaries cut by 5%, the process for firing employees was simplified, and retirement age was increased to 67.  yet the european union’s third largest deficit continued to grow. the unions were puffed up their chests, and the government tightened its belt.  but there was little real protest.   a state of denial took hold of the nation. no-one could really believe the construction boom was over. and it wasn’t until june, after the passage of the labor reforms in parliament, that the two largest unions called for a general strike- scheduled almost three and a half months later, for the 29th of september.


guillaume darribau



in the dominant narrative the strike was the last ditch reaction by organized labor to protect workers’ rights.  yet, the general strike was after the fact.  the reforms had been enacted and would stay, besides which organized labor had long since lost the societal status and influence to steer such negotiations.  it seemed more and more as if the general strike was organized out of nostalgia and routine, done so with tacit recognition of the event’s futility.  a reality confirmed on thursday, when moody’s finally followed suit and like the other two credit rating institutions also downgraded spain to Aa1. the move has made it that much harder for the kingdom to attract foreign investment. investment that spain is dangerously dependent on. and as in greece the economic instability appears more structural than symptomatic. however in the dominant narrative the downgrading is un-important, secondary news to the ineffective and violent general strike, the commentary of political pundits and the camera jockeying by the rival parties. in the dominant narrative the riots are a surprise, a new reaction to the new crisis.  yet the violence is nothing new, and for many the economic crisis has become the economic norm. the desperation that lurks in the shadows manifests itself in many ways.  at night in barcelona, a growing of metal recyclers take to the urban landscape in search of metal to salvage, and many immigrants to the country are considering returning home.  today jobs are hard to come by as unemployment reaches 20%.  and while on the ground it seems like the sky is collapsing, in the narrative its as if with a little fine tuning everything will return to the boom of the last decade.  the tension is hidden behind attempts to stimulate growth, and while the economists and politicians promise it will get better you can hear the whispers of a failed euro, a failed european union.

the fear mixes with stored rage and the spontaneity of the actions, and you can feel the power.  it pulses through the air, the energy is on the side of the riot.  the laws of gravity make the rocks fall harder than the police batons and the routine of daily apathy is smashed in pieces.  the violence forces sides.  spectators become actors, watching instead of leaving. their presence and curiosity reflect emotions they can’t help but explore.  its a spectacle for sure, a theater of the deed.  and soon the curtain will close and the show will be left for the critics.  but until then the theatrics grow, protagonists are everywhere. hooded souls spawn from the collective rage. they run down alleys overturning dumpsters, creating barricades ablaze with life. it is an interactive production.  the mass waits for the police’s response, passively indulging in a fetish, taboo for most. a fetish for the impossible. an interruption to the constant growth, the constant repetition, the constant consumption of the city and everyday life.  the impossibility of the weak overturning the strong. the impossibility that this limitless economy has limits. the impossibility that we are responsible for those limits, and that only we can return some sort of balance to our worlds.

the dominant narrative seeks a guilty hand to blame for the current economic instability so as not to put into doubt the in-sustainability of the entire global economy.  for some it is the immigrant, or the unemployed.  for others it is the bankers or the politicians.  but few present the hypothesis that perhaps we’re all a little to blame. all guilty having taken advantage of the surplus society we’ve come to take for granted.  the collapse is disguised again in this blame game. in spain many different social groups have been signaled as a threat to current recovery initiatives.  yet in moments of open conflict like the riots in barcelona on wednesday- the okupa, the anarchist, the romanian, the terrorist, the foreigner, the direction-less youth, the poor, the immigrant, and the criminal, etc., are all fused into one- the “anti-sistema”.   this identity, created by the media and politicians, has become the most recent personification of the margins of the modern spanish society. it mixes subjectivities. individual experiences of frustration and desperation are simplified into sound bites and front page photos. an other-ing of rebellion is promoted.  the violence in the streets can only be understood as criminal, or a reflection of insanity.  political violence is not part of the narrative.  and with a stroke of a pen, or the pressing of the camera’s record button the narrative rewrites the spectacle.  it is necessary the reduction of the totality of actors into sides, roles- good and bad, legal and illegal, just and in-just, passive and violent. a false binary is created and the complexity of the spectacle with all of its different actors, different goals, and different methods is explained away. “the anti-sistemas planned the riots. they took advantage of the demonstration to destroy everything in their path… their actions ruined official marches scheduled for the city.” and the violence is understood as a manifestation of an isolated group’s criminal character. the rage is rendered illogical, and the glutinous inequity that defines spanish society seems consequential. the calamitous proportions of the economic unraveling taking place is hidden in the anecdotal nature with which the violence is actively misunderstood.


guillaume darribau


dumpsters rattle towards the police lines. the smell of burning plastic wafts through the riot. it feels as if someone has sprayed tear gas. eyes burn and the sound of shots fired rings in the air. the theater of the impossible reigns.  the knights of the shadows take orders from no one and the surplus economy with its popped construction bubble provides them the weapons to help them hold true to their promise.  cement blocks are thrown against the asphalt, splintering into dozens of possible missiles.  the police scatter against the rain of rock.  a sense of elation fills the streets. for an instant the logical superiority of guns fails.  and the normal rules of political engagement are broken.  the experience is cathartic.  the catharsis makes nothing the same.  the taste of collective power, collective strength is addictive, and dangerous.  a reporter’s camera is thrown into the barricade, its owner left helpless.   the politics are many, but the message is clear.  normalcy will not be accepted.  routine is not an option.  change is inherently disruptive.  in taking back control of one’s mind, one’s body, there is pleasure.  there is pleasure in the destruction.

its all been written before.  i’m not sure exactly when it was that the dominant narrative replaced history, our subjective realities, or when political violence became criminal, or when labor became a pawn, or when the spectacle replaced action and praxis.  some say it was with the end of the vietnam war or the civil rights movement, and others say it arrived with the globalized economy.  for the purpose of this article its not really important.  what is, is that the dominant narrative, if understood, can be used to see into the future.  while the riots have stopped, the spectacle of the riots has not.  it is expensive political capital, in need of rapid exploitation.  there were 40 detentions during the riots, all but one have been released.  the remaining prisoner is a mexican national, and is faced with possible deportation. all of the charges presented were of relatively minor significance.  the police have stated that they are reviewing the video and photographic data to ascertain the instigators of the riot.  the investigation is open.  the general strike is being evaluated in terms of effectiveness, yet the labor reforms remain and the government refuses to negotiate. and the deficit grows.  future detentions are guaranteed, as the politicians and the media look for a new spectacle to keep their narrative alive.  calls for an eviction of the city’s squatter population have already been made, and actual evictions can be expected. but it will be a show.  the guiltiness of the accused will be of little importance.  their trial will be another chapter in the dominant narrative and when it is finished most likely they’ll be released.   and yet the economy will sink further and further into debt.  and inevitably there will be new eruptions of public violence, and new assimilations of that violence into the dominant narrative.  and where there are no eruptions of public outcry the narrative will create them.  but increasingly it seems the narrative is running out of pages. the readers and actors are becoming bored. everything is beginning to appear finite.

there is nothing like the high one gets with a release of adrenaline.  its been too long since its flowed freely.  the body is in shock.  riding the high.  the pleasure erotic in it’s fleetingness.  it’s impermanence, sacred in its affront to a world stagnating with repetitious death. meaningless death.  death in wars, death at the job, death for ideals.  and so the adrenaline converts the anger and frustration into action, complacency burned away.  the dried sweat and accumulated lactic acid are bittersweet reminders of the day’s battles.  a memory of the graffiti on the destroyed carabinieri van during the g8 riots in genova- we are winning! that victory is fleeting, but its feeling it is real.


guillaume darribau




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