'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Saturday, May 22, 2010

BOOK REVIEW: Anarchism and the City 

In Anarchism and the City: Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Barcelona, 1898-1937, Chris Ealham subjects the anarchist experience in Barcelona to a contemporary urban studies analysis, with striking results. Much of it has a strong, contemporary resonance in light of events in Greece. Ealham emphasizes the interrelationship of two features of the early 20th Century development of Barcelona, the emergence of a manufacturing economy incapable of generating sufficient profit to finance the provision of social welfare to the populace, and, as a consequence of the ensuing unrest invariably associated with such economic development, a perpetual contestation between proletarians, the bourgeoisie and capitalists over public space.

Barcelona aspired to be a world city, a Paris of the south, but the low profit margins of its small scale manufacturing activity, and a poorly funded absentee state, rendered such an aspiration implausible from the inception. Catalonia, unlike the rest of Spain, embraced industrialization, but Barcelona, the center of the region's transformation, lacked the resources to provide even the most rudimentary services to the people drawn there to work. For example, housing was grossly inadequate in every respect, there was never enough of it, and it was frequently expensive and dilapidated. Flats originally built for a single family were converted into beehives, accomodating as many as eight families, while casual workers and the homeless rented cheap rooms with beds available at hourly rates, and even paid to sleep on foot in a communal room. As for education and medical care, people found themselves compelled to accept whatever was provided by an autocratic Catholic Church. Anger over the abusive treatment accorded them by the Church in their condition of dependency contributed to church arsons in 1909, 1931 and 1936, and, perhaps other times as well.

Accordingly, the location of the working class within a growing Barcelona, and their use of public space became a permanent preoccupation of the middle and upper classes. Ealham traces a thread of continuity between the monarchy, Primo de Rivera's dictatorship, and, more controversially, the Republic, in regard to policies of social control. Each, in their own way, sought to criminalize various forms of working class resistance and fragment the communities in which the workers lived. Interestingly, Ealham describes much of the byzantine maneuvering among the political factions of the middle and upper classes during this period as being partially explainable by concerns over the ability of the government to preserve public order, by which they meant the preservation of a quiescent workforce. Hence, they abandoned the monarchy for the dictatorship and compelled the liberals of the Republic to resort to more and more expansive police powers prior to the Civil War, while abandoning their promises of social assistance.

Workers, whether formally or informally employed, sought to shape their communities collectively to enable as many people as possible to survive the conditions of extreme deprivation in which they lived, an endeavor that the elites perpetually sought to suppress. They appropriated public spaces in order to gather and protest; they congregated in cafes to plan organizing campaigns; they used the sidewalks to sell goods as street vendors when formal employment, as was often the case, was unavailable. All of these activities were either criminalized or disrupted by police action. Ealham explains how the elites exploited panics over morals and vice to justify these measures. Workers also created their own secular educational and cultural venues outside the control of the state and the Church. Of course, these, too, were subjected to repression during times of class conflict on the streets.

Through such conflict throughout Spain, the Confederacion Nacional del Trabajo, the CNT, the legendary anarcho-syndicalist organization, was born. Ealham asserts that it was most successful when it was interwoven into the communities of the workers and their collective struggles, and supported evolving forms of historic direct action protest, such as forced requisitioning of foodstuffs, raucous street protest, rent strikes, and coerced hiring of unemployed people, but went astray when militants adopted unilateral, individualistic methods such as assassinating employers and other political enemies and expropriating funds through bank robberies. Of course, this is an old debate within anarchism, but Ealham marshals some impressive evidence for his perspective, namely, the precipitous decline in CNT membership between 1931 and 1936 because of police repression of what Ealham describes as militarized anarchism. Between June 1931 and May 1936, CNT membership in Catalonia dropped 291,240 to 122,812, while in Barcelona, it dropped from 186,152 to 98,292.

Hence, on the verge of the coup that everyone anticipated in response to the Popular Front victory, the CNT was, according to Ealham, in a weakened state. While praising the effective armed resistance to the military assault on July 19th, he suggests that the inability of the CNT to follow through upon its success and revolutionize Catalan society was the result of a diminished influence within proletarian communities, as well as a sectarianism that left it vulnerable to the reinvigorated power of the middle and upper classes, this time as manifested, chameleonlike as usual, through the emergence of the heretofore politically marginal Communist Party. A massive influx of new members after the coup concealed this vulnerability.

But could it have been different? Ealham suggests some possibilities. He highlights the empowering dimension of collective action undertaken in challenging circumstances, such as the rent strike launched just before the beginning of the Republic and subsequent ongoing protests by the unemployed and street vendors against efforts to drive them from the streets. Both created opportunities for organizing broad based support within proletarian neighborhoods centered issues of daily subsistence and hostility towards the police. Such support bent in the face of government repression, but the implication is that such actions created an enduring relationship that could not be permanently severed, whereas the small group campaign of assassinations and bank robberies did not. Even so, Ealham displays an ambivalence, as he does acknowledge public support for them as the Depression became more and more acute. Sectarianism also played a role as CNT militants fought with others on the left during these efforts, preventing them from realizing the reward of community based direct action activism.

Furthermore, women were an essential feature of community direct action efforts like rent strikes and efforts to combat inflation in food prices, while only being involved in expropriations, if at all, in an auxiliary role. If women were rarely involved in bank robberies, it can also be assumed that they were similarly infrequently associated violent attacks upon employers. Militarized anarchism therefore had the predictable consequence of sidelining a major portion of the proletariat and lumpen proletariat from anarcho-syndicalist activity. It constituted a marginalization of the already limited role of working women within anarchism, where women, even those within unions, provided support primarily within the domestic sphere. As noted by Ealham, unions were essentially masculine spaces. Clearly, the anarchists were not alone in this, Ealham relates how, during the Civil War itself, the Trotskyite POUMistas sexually segregated their meetings, with male party members mocking female ones. But the result was still the same, the failure of a revolutionary movement to mobilize all of its participants to their fullest potential.

Is it possible that women might have suggested community direct action and mass mobilization alternatives to the small group violence that became such a publicly prominent feature of anarchism in Barcelona in the years before the coup? One does not have to accept gender stereotypes to pose such a question. As Iulia, a Greek anarchist, said in an interview published in We Are An Image of the Future: The Greek Revolt of December 2008:

If we suppose that Greek anarchists are sexist I would say that it has to do with their relationship to violence in a way that excludes other activities that are more feminine in quotation marks. They have to be heroic and if they're not they're not important in the movement. It's this structure of small faction each with their own leader or face, a persona, and I don't like that. It's a patriarchal structure. Greek society is quite patriarchal and we carry these structures into our own groups as well.

As for valuing masculine labor over female labor, we lack the organization in which the importance of female labor becomes obvious. The heroic acts are most important; that's the only narrative we have, and so feminine labor is not valued. I think that's why we don't have many squats in Greece, because it requires organization. But we're getting more and more squats.

In this, the gender relations of Catalonian anarchism provide an echo that can still be heard in the present day.

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