Are Okupas (Spanish Squatters) Good Savages?

Els bons salvatges

Els bons salvatges [The Good Savages] (2008) by Ferran Sáez Mateu, a Professor of Communication Sciences at Ramon Llull University in Barcelona, is definitely worth a read.

The subtitle of Sáez Mateu’s book, El fracàs inevitable de les utopies polítiques modernes [The Inevitable Failure of Modern Political Utopias], reveals the true focus of the investigation’s critical examination: political utopias. He argues that the construction of political utopias is “el fet d’imaginar i descriure un determinat canvi social” [the act of imagining and describing a particular social change] and that the imagination “acostuma a tenir ben poc a veure amb la seva materialització efectiva” [usually has little to do with its actual materialization] (20). The instigators of the imagined social transformation are also figures of the imagination. Through these invented subjects, what Sáez Mateu terms the good savages, methods to attain a political revolution can be theorized or specific political problems can be identified without having to supply real-world solutions. For example, Sáez Mateu asserts that Marx, through his writings, invents a fictional, theoretical counterpart of the exploited proletariat of the nineteenth century, and it is this chimerical being, not the actual worker, who particicpates in the revolutionary struggle. These good savages imagine “paradís terrenal” (19) [earthly paradise], “la redempció de l’esser humà” (19) [the redemption of human beings], “la felicitat universal” (19) [universal happiness], “la salvació del planeta” (20) [the planet’s salvation], and “la fin de les guerres” (20) [the end of war]. In other words, all grand narratives claim that by changing one thing (in the case of Marxism, by eliminating private property) the world will become a perfect place. However, Sáez Mateu maintains that the imagination that these good savages provide does not actualize the dream for a perfect world. On the contrary, it often times devolves into totalitarian nightmares. Sáez Mateu is critical of revolutionary struggles on both the left and the right that seek totalizing utopias. I agree with Sáez Mateu, as do many critics, that the belief in grand narratives is no longer viable.[i] However, I disagree with Sáez Mateu that the failure of political utopias invalidates the power of imagination, especially in the present context of post-fordism and cognitive capitalism. At the root of Sáez Mateu’s disdain for the socialists’ treatment of the okupas as the good urban savage as well as his contempt for the okupas themselves is his materialist stance vis-à-vis the materialist/symbolic divide. That is, his particular critique of the good savages is really a pretext to defend on a more universal scale analytical philosophy, logic, and the Welfare State.

Sáez Mateu correctly locates the okupas within the anarchist tradition, but mistakenly (or in a calculated move) equates them solely with the Bakunin strand of anarchism because Bakunin fits neatly with his project. As Richard J.F. Day observes, Bakunin was both utopic and guilty of authoritarian politics (116). That is, Bakunin advocated a non-statist social revolution that would lead to the complete emancipation of society, a utopia. However, he believed that the revolution could only be achieved through the totalizing guidance of secret societies consisting of professional revolutionaries. In contrast with Sáez Mateu’s categorization, the okupas’s goal is not utopian. They do not pretend to completely and definitively defeat capitalism in the future, but to create a better life in the present. They identify with anarchist Petr Kropotkin’s notion of constructing alternatives here and now instead of waiting for some future revolution as well as with anarchist Gustav Landauer’s argument, as explained by Day, that “new institutions must be created […] alongside, rather than inside, existing modes of social organization” (123). As a result, okupas reject traditional anarchism’s belief that institutions of domination and exploitation have to be destroyed. Instead, okupas embrace the post-anarchist notions of no-future in conjunction with the construction of affinity groups like squatted social centers alongside corporate and state forms.

I would argue that Sáez Mateu’s criticism of the okupas’s imagination is well founded from his point of view, but misplaced. It is not because they are utopian, but, precisely, because they are dystopian. His intolerance of their imagination is not because it leads to a utopia that will never occur, but because it defies the fixed relations of representational thinking in the here and now and, in so doing, frees bodies to act in new, unforeseen ways as in the squatting of abandoned buildings. His criticism is an attempt to reterritorialize a line of thought shared by Spinoza, Nietzsche, Foucault, Deleuze, Guattari, and, now, by the okupas. On the one hand, Sáez Mateu condemns totalizing ideologies like Marxism, anarchism, Nazism, and Stalinism among others, but, on the other, is blind to the fact that analytical philosophy is a totalizing system in which words signify because of a predetermined structure of constant relations between signified and signifier. He cannot recognize the okupas because they are faceless to him. He cannot “see” them or “understand” them because they organize themselves not according to the hegemony of the signifier but according to constantly changing relations. In order to demonstrate Sáez Mateu’s blindness, I would like to quote at length the following passage:

Per deixar clar tot això potser cal recórrer a la nitidesa argumentativa de la filosofia analítica. Jo – i crec que tothom – estic en disposició de determinar què significa el terme <<dona>> i què significa el terme <<enginyera>>; o què significa l’expressió <<home de raça negra>> i l’expressió <<secretari de defense dels Estats Units d’Amèrica>>. Doncs bé: no sembla haver-hi cap impediment racional per enllaçar aquests termes en una frase coherent, amb subjecte, verb i predicat […] En canvi, jo no sé què vol dir exactament l’expressió <<experiència d’alliberament psicoperceptiu>> […] ni tampoc entenc l’abast semàntic del segment lingüístic <<castració neocapitalista>> o <<neofatxes globals>>. En conseqüència, no crec que puguin arribar a donar lloc ni a una descripció ni a una prescripció. Ni tan sols a una frase amb sentit. (47-48)

[In order to make all of this clear it may be necessary to resort to the argumentative clarity of analytical philosophy. I am able- and I think everyone is- to determine what is meant by the term “women” and what the term “engineer” means, or what the expression “black man” means and the expression “secretary of defense of the United States of America.” Well: there does not seem to be any rational impediment linking these terms in a coherent sentence with subject, verb and predicate […] But I do not know exactly what the expression “experience of psychoperceptive liberation” means […] nor do I understand the semantic scope of the phrase “neo-capitalist castration” or “global neofascists.” Consequently, I do not think they can create a description or a prescription. Not even a meaningful sentence.]

For Sáez Mateu, a thinking that does not conform to a set of fixed rules is unthinkable and clearly uncomfortable. However, if new meanings and actions can never be imagined, they can never be realized in the material world. Sáez Mateu is right to be wary of the political use of imagination as decor. However, he should be equally careful not to dismiss all forays into the nonsensical as too theoretical and unpractical, a charge that he levels against Marx and Bakunin for having relied on fictional counterparts of the marginalized masses instead of on the real workers to further their perspective ideologies.

On the question of how to relate theory and practice, that is, mind and body, Sáez Mateu errors on the side of practice and body. He believes that practical change for real bodies is possible through the state form, namely, the Welfare State. The strength of the Welfare State is that it is grounded in reality. It does not pretend to have the definitive answer to all political problems. Rather, it is dedicated to the continual betterment of society, not its perfection. Sáez Mateu criticizes the Catalan socialists for wasting the resources of the Welfare State on the okupas, a fictional urban group (fictional in the sense that they are self-marginalized, middle-class young people that are just “jugant a la revolució” 80 [playing revolution]) instead of on involuntarily marginalized groups like “families autòctones molt pobres”(83) [very poor local families] and “grups d’immigrants que viuen atapeïts en condicions infrahumanes” (83) [immigrant groups living in subhuman conditions.] He accuses the Catalan socialists of creating a “figura mediàticament homologada de l’okupa” (83) [a positive portrayal of the squatter in the media.] They magically convert “el punki del gos i la flauteta” (83) [the punk with a dog and a flute], what Sáez Mateu believes, along with Albert Gimeno, the chief editor of the Vivir section of La Vanguardia, to be the true representation of the okupa, into a rhetorical figure, “una plausible barreja de Bakunin, Ferrer i Guàrdia i Robin Hood” (83) [a plausible mixture of Bakunin, Ferrer i Guardia and Robin Hood] whose squatted building resembles less a “sala de festes de cap de setmana sense llicència municipal” (83) [weekend nightclub without a municipal license] (again what both Sáez Mateu and Gimeno believe to be the true function) and more a social center that serves the needs of the neighborhood.[ii] This rhetorical figure is used to denounce the lack of affordable housing without having to provide political solutions. Keeping in mind that Els bons salvatges was published in September 2008, the sanitized okupas to which he is referring must be those of the soap opera El cor de la ciutat (2007) and the Children’s and Young Adult Literature books Las pelirrojas traen mala suerte (1995), Korazón de Pararrayos (2003), and Los okupantes (2005), and not the representations of okupas in print media, for there were no sanitized okupas in Gimeno’s newspaper portrayals in La Vanguardia (2005-2007). The okupas he described were precisely those of “the punk with a dog and a flute” who squatted buildings in order to convert them into illegal discotheques.

Sáez Mateu’s critique is that ideological okupas are spoiled, middle-class intellectuals with dreadlocks whose radical theories have nothing to do with the reality of precarious living. While I acknowledge that the analysis of El cor de la ciutat, El Kaserón, Las pelirrojas traen mala suerte, Korazón de Pararrayos and Los okupantes support the view that the okupas are manipulated and refashioned by the socialist Catalan Imaginary to resemble the good savage, I disagree with him that Barcelonan okupas are not real subjects of social change.

[i] Jean-François Lyotard is the first to acknowledge the failure of grand narratives in 1979 in The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Other theorists who forward similar projects are Jacques Derrida, Gilles Deleuze, and Félix Guattari.

[ii] Francisco Ferrer i Guardia (1859-1909) was a Catalonian anarchist who founded in 1901 the Escuela Moderna [The Modern School], a progressive school whose aim was to groom middle-class children to be the future leaders of the coming political revolution. He was executed in 1909 during the Tragic Week in Barcelona.

Works Cited

Day, Richard J. F. Gramsci Is Dead: Anarchist Currents in the Newest Social Movements. London: Pluto Press, 2005. Print.

Sáez Mateu, Ferran. Els bons salvatges: El fracàs inevitable de les utopies polítiques modernes. Barcelona: L’arquer, 2008. Print.