Gritos en el Cielo (Shouts in the sky) focuses on the 2011 spring of revolt in Barcelona, sparked by the financial crisis, imposed austerity measures and their resulting harsh social consequences. It is a documentary about human dignity investigated through several stories of people from different professions and social classes fighting for equality and fairness in the midst of this turmoil. Gritos en el Cielo is also a historical document of a generation that rose from general apathy to express the emotional and intellectual critical forces long suppressed in the youth of Europe. It was the time of incredibly beautiful days full of exceptional dreams, impressive collective non-hierarchical activism and of standing up for one’s will to live with dignity.

The documentary followed an discussion with Sakari Laurila moderated by filmaker, Adonis Florides.

Sketches of Spain: commodity logic of political change in the Barcelona uprising of 2011

Introduction and the rupture of Barcelona

The 2011 uprising in Barcelona, a social and political rupture that started with the occupation of Plaza Catalonya, captured and expressed a frustration of a generation. In its impressive variety of actions, intentions and sentiments, there was one above all: a strong collective experience of creating radical and sudden political change. The entire experience and how it ended with its buried illusions provoked a necessity for an analysis of the quality and nature of an ideology at play in the social sphere where the rupture happened. The focus here will be on the consumerist nature of this ideology and more precisely, on the logic of commodification internalised within it.

Austerity politics of global financial institutions and the Spanish State were the main reasons that the large scale political rupture happened in Barcelona and other Spanish cities in 2011. Thus its initial nature was reactive. However, its beauty was found precisely in the initial rupture, characterised by a state of ideological error, direct interaction with uncertainty and a general organic state of change (organic in a literal sense of the word of being radical, elemental to the life sustaining social and psychological metabolism/organs). It was initially not a moment for quick political solutions, but a constructed mutual space for collective reflection, a moment to demand that we really need to pause, encounter and think.

Quickly, as spring turned into summer, this initial state of openness started to close in on itself through demands for immediate answers and acts for political change. Quickly the reactive nature of the movement became dominant, allowing the contemporary ideology to re-established itself, with its main message: let’s do some minor changes in our ideological imagery so that we can all continue enjoying the same structures of exploitation.

Its reactive nature was a clear weakness. Firstly reactive activity gains its life force from the characteristics of a counterforce. Therefore, when the counterforce changes or loses its importance, the reactive movement becomes passive. For example, the anti-austerity movement becomes passive when global consumerism and capitalism manage to locally start to appear nice again. However, this was not the main reason for the failure of the persistent movement that expressed so many dreams and frustrations of a generation. Repression by the Spanish State apparatus did occur heavily in 2012, but this also, was not the main reason for the passivity and dispersion of the possible political change. Instead, I claim, the main reason was a general and unrecognised ideological self-deception that prevents the individual and systemic foundation of our lives to be seriously questioned in a level where they can actually change.

The ideological social apparatus

Rather than the Althusserian ideological state apparatus, the contemporary forms of neoliberal capitalism are deeply rooted in the functioning of an ideological social apparatus that has little connections to the state and is in this sense neoliberal by nature. It is based more on the ideas of free individual consumerism, horizontal global digital communication and even the egalitarian and non-hierarchical ideas and methods of the activists themselves. The ideological content is distributed from individual to individual, peer-to-peer, NGOs to individuals and corporations to individuals.

However different by virtue of imagery, symbols, and functioning to the classical ideological state apparatus, its fundamental mechanisms are similar. For example, this contemporary ideology addresses our relation to the global structures of power that in turn form the structures of our own power and comfort by, for example, making them appear pleasant thus redeeming or dismantling criticism directed towards them. Again, in the ideological terms: everyone more or less knows the structures of exploitation that are at work to maintain our life styles, but the social ideological apparatus allows us to function in a peculiar and complex denial.

This ideological social apparatus is today the fundamental form for maintaining power in liberal democracies while state repression, in neoliberal European systems such as in Barcelona 2011, has become more of an appearance. On this sphere both forms of ideology work on the level of images: the underdog heroic activist and the police beating the activist with a baton. These relate to our ideological images of violence and thus our emotions, social relations and reactions are mediated by this ideological sphere. However, the “real” and systemic violence is somewhere else, which leaves this sphere with almost a mere appearance value. The State or corporations using police or private security forces for repressive violence does happen when individuals do something that is impossible to recuperate by this reversed capitalist détournement or other aspects of the ideological social apparatus, but the significant point here is that the underlying violence is maintained by the ideological social apparatus and its connection to the nature of commodity: of making violence into images, and thus objects of violence in the marketplace of political propaganda. In other words, the activists can use the images of the police beating them to gain political power or sympathy from the public while the police uses images of activists breaking the windows of stores in order to portray them as violent scoundrels, to discredit them and justify their use of force on them. The ideological distance to reality is expressed in the relation between the image of receiving a blow from a police baton and the underlying systemic violence that the baton, the police and the society rest upon – the layers of ideology similar to those for a dead fish in Jacques Prevert’s La grasse matinée. So the point here is that this commodification of violence is ideological by nature and enables the veiling of the structural violence that critique should in fact be directed towards.

Contemporary ideology as the unrecognised natural state

Because of its subtle, complex and détournement-like nature, the effects of this ideology are difficult to recognise in the thoughts and actions of individuals. However, in its foundations, that is, on a sort of super-real psychological sphere where individuals emotionally and psychologically function in a sort of image-realm of collectivity, it is built similarly to classical ideologies. This realm is directly connected to the social reality, but alters it in significant ways. Although contemporary social and political imagery is much more complex, assuming the appearance of being politically correct and more liberal than classical ideologies, it similarly provides the individual with the emotional and psychological relief of externalising responsibility to the ideological collective sphere, thus externalising political change itself – and at the same time remaining unaware of it. Or it calls for individual responsibility, but only on the level of changing the appearances of one’s consumer identity/behaviour to match any given ethical imagery that remains inside the sphere of the dominant ideology and hence also avoid the responsibility.

The commodity nature of contemporary ideology

The awareness of the logic of commodity hinges on the ability to realise significant, but subtle differences in appearances, in how we perceive the world. “This is a trifle, of course, Watson, but there’s nothing so important as trifles.”, as Sherlock Holmes puts it. More precisely: how everything appears to us and how we think they appear to us, because appearances are part of our reality. As Slavoj Žižek for instance stresses in many of his works and talks, it is important not to think of the usual materialist dichotomy of the ideological vs. the real, but rather to realise the difference in how a certain quality of an appearance creates a certain type of consciousness and thus certain agency.

For example, the spontaneous tent village built in the occupied Plaza Catalonia was initially lived in a highly non-ideological manner. It was already a wonderfully creative and subversive act which generated a spontaneous, rhizomatic village with people unknown to each other in the centre of the city with a functioning food supply, garbage system, professional law, media and communication commissions, that by mutual effort functioned as a village of collective reflection and direct encounters. This was in it self a significant, seriously political situation directed towards change.

However, gradually as demands for answers and instant political proposals started to infiltrate the space more and more, the ideological imagery and ideas with all the illusions, heroism and other appearances entered the front stage. It seemed as if it was emotionally and psychologically impossible to let it appear as what it actually was, and to focus and reflect on that natural state of uncertainty of change and thus continue the encounter of political change without knowing where it will exactly lead. The ideological sphere of appearances had to be brought to the forefront in order to feel adequately politically firm and significant, which is a type of representation of reality well known from representative politicians.

Here it becomes visibly clear how commodification attaches a collective mythical aspect of hidden desire to the idea of change – in the case of Plaza Catalonia towards an unknown utopia. This element of its commodification was also expressed in the New York occupy movement that followed. This is of course a mechanism already pioneered by religious organisations, where some mythical promise is hidden in the act of collective deliverance – paradise as a product.

Motivation, Ideology, and sense of significance

The nature of reactive relations that the logic of commodification creates between humans as the agency for change and the political change itself is similar to the ontology of human relatedness to nature. When nature is seen, felt and related to as an object instead of its impossible-to-grasp multiplicity, out-of-human-control complexity and its non-object character, it becomes objectified in appearances for purposes of control. Nature is beyond the humans attempt to turn it into an object, but its appearances are not. And then in turn, as a reactive move, a mythical sphere/reality is invented and attached to this objectified appearance. Similarly as when human relates to nature by attaching into it a created appearance of untouchable holiness – the mythical desire.

This is also comparable to the non-ideological and complex nature of change that escapes objectification and commodifying, and how for reasons of control, a level of appearances of it is created and a mythical level of desire is attached to it. Having done this the newly established appearance can be used and controlled for the sake of apparent easy solutions or fixes.

Here the core logic of reactivity and its connection to the logic of commodity surfaces. Something that is impossible to grasp and control, such as long lasting and progressive political change, is forced to appear as an object exchangeable on the market of ideological relatedness. It is impossible to change the nature of political change for our immediate fix, so we create a controllable appearance to hide its true nature, which is too difficult, complex and possibly dangerous to encounter directly. To this appearance we establish a subject-object relation, so that we do not end up face to face with life itself in all its cruelty of complexity, unpredictability and even possibly sober responsibility.

Text by Sakari Laurila.