George Bastos

The Ethics of Protest and the Ethics of Collusion with the Powerful

Recently, the political elite in Spain revealed the extent of its respect for the grievances voiced by the people when it ordered the police to finally clear the Puerta del Sol Square. They clearly were not welcome –  all those indignadas and indignados who had stayed there, some of them since May 15. They were not welcome because by their very presence they intended to highlight that the populace is aware of grave problems, such as dire poverty of many retired workers,  and unemployment of almost one half of all job-seekers below the age of 26. Unreasonable complaints? No.  But nonetheless, they were not welcome. And so the police attacked once again the peaceful young and old women and men of the Spanish capital who had the courage to declare openly that “they do not represent us.” And by “they” these protesting people refer to the political class, los politicos, and specifically today to the governing “social-democratic” PSOE that succumbs to the forces of neo-liberal redistribution of publicly produced wealth. No,  “they do not represent us.” And the PP? Yes, they “won” the local elections in May 2011, because many wanted to “punish” the PSOE, and because many others – especially, the very committed, very well informed indignadas and indignados, did not vote at all. They don’t leave us in doubt about this: the PP is even worse than the PSOE. And the IU? A tame, toothless tiger… And the trade unions? Giving in and giving in and giving in. No, they – the indignant ones – don’t trust them any more. All those words. Those party programs. Those broken election promises. Those declarations of support from the left when, in fact, the leaders of the left seek their tactical agreements with the PSOE and the unions, believing perhaps that pragmatism is necessary and that what they do is a sign of such “necessary” pragmatism. 

Even Giorgios Papandreou, in Greece, may kid himself in this way. 
Telling himself and everybody else that “there IS NO ALTERNATIVE” to giving in to the demands of the troika – the European Central Bank, the IMF, and the European Commission. Well, the Kirchner government in Argentina had the courage to default on the country’s debt, and to offer creditors one third of the sum owed, and that was it. Why not return to the drachma? If Europe proves incapable of real solidarity, a lot more of such questions need to be asked. Questions that offer a true, truly global, cooperative perspective that abandons and transcends the ethos of competition. Why not reorient the Greek economy towards the Near East and West Asia, rather than Western Europe? Or better still, cooperate with African countries, in a beautiful South-South effort to attain sustainable development, by turning away from the egotistical, exploitative North? Is it not true that attempts to create a modern industrial base in Greece have been crushed in recent decades in almost all fields except pharmaceutics, due to lack of protection against competitors in W.Europe? Impossible to survive, to develop when encountering the onslaught of companies in countries that enjoyed a head-start.

In Spain it was the property boom that created illusions of “progress.” But like Greece and Portugal and the Italian mezzogiorno, the country has not seen much real progress due to the European Union. The coal mines, the steel industry of the North, the textile industry of Barcelona – does any of it remain that is worth speaking of? And what that is new and modern has replaced it as a noteworthy industrial base? It is Germany, perhaps France, to some extent Belgium and the Netherlands that have profited.  No, not their population. Merely their big corporations that suddenly enjoyed unhindered market access. The European Union, the way it was realized, is a tool of redistribution of publicly produced wealth. From the many to the few. And from Southern member countries to those further North. A good reason, therefore, to ask how we, the people, can reshape and rebuild this union.

At any rate, we, the people, have started to wake up, to ask questions, to move, to take to the streets, and to demand real change.

“They don’t represent us” – this is not a denunciation of democracy. It is a demand, an urgent appeal, to every one who has eyes to see and ears to hear. And it centers on the necessity to create a democracy more worthy of its name: a better, more participative democracy, that allows the common people to take part in the debate concerning the immediate as well as the not the immediate problems we must face. And there are many such problems. Are we not aware of climate change, of the prevalent disregard for nature, for the ecological balance of the planet? Can we deny today’s outrageous disregard for social justice, and the effective blindless of governments and the wealthy in the face of hunger and dire poverty (on a local, national and global scale)? Can we be in doubt about the carelessness of the self-declared “elite” when we point out to them our anger provoked by rampant mass unemployment and increasing exploitation, and by the cynical devastation of of the lives of a large and increasing number of working people – in both a pychological and physiological sense? As we know, all of this is fanned, of course, by the relentless drive of the top 0.05 or 0.1 per cent for maximum profit, an it is defended and even encouraged by the dominant discourses in the mass media,  by the dominant ethics, so to speak – which have been contributing to this climate of rugged individualism, of anti-social competition, a social darwinism of the worst sort that is meant to make us bow to whatever pressure we are subjected to while remaining mute in the face of every scandal we perceive.

Recently, a publicly venerated philosopher was invited to preach in that highly symbolic locus of absolutist power, the Escorial.  I am speaking of Fernando Savater.  He made use of this opportunity to denounce today’s young people. He said, in fact, “I have the impression that today’s youth accepts culture as totally free-of-charge [gratis total], that the creators don’t deserve remuneration.”*

A remarkably open statement by a well-fed, well-paid, saturated writer, an academic with a safe job who defends the status quo.**  In fact, I have always thought that this quarrelsome focusing on “intellectual property” somehow lets us forget that he who gains a new insight or attains a new knowledge loses nothing if he shares it with others. It is in fact a joy to share, and this sharing is the main justification of learning, and of philosophy. That the philosopher must eat, in order to live, is of course a truism. But let society at large look after that. Isn’t there a community honored with his presence? Or at least a ministry of culture, if no better solution can be found? In Spain, as I said, nearly one half (45 per cent) of all young people are unemployed, according to the official statistics. Those eager to read should be able to have access to books (and they even should own books) free of charge. Instead, the price of books has seen a staggering upward development in the last 40 years. What might have cost the equivalent of 50 or 75 cents in the  1960s easily costs 12 or 20 Euros today, and what then would have cost 5 or 10 Euros today approaches or tops 100. At the same time, because corporations pay hardly any taxes and because public coffers are almost empty, public libraries are being closed.

The philosopher from San Sebastian, Señor Savater, has something more to tell the young people of Spain, and the middle-aged and old people as well, who joined the protesters on the Puerta del Sol Square and on many other squares in many other towns in Spain. Feted in the Escorial, a place more symbolic of power than of culture on account of its history, Señor Savater tells them that they are practically idiots because they don’t (he seems to assume) understand the fine print, the formalistic underpinnings of the democratic game, i.e., that “the politicians represent us” indeed – because it’s a representative democracy, because we can vote (or abstain), and the vote is counted, and then, after all, there is a result. There are those elected representatives. And whether they cheat us and lie to us and practice collusion with big business, and bow to the diktat of financial markets, or not – they are our representatives. We, the people – or at least those 50 or 60 or in some countries close to 70  per cent who still vote – have elected them. Yes, true enough. And those 30 or 35  per cent of the electorate (a smaller percentage, of the entire populace, of course) who voted for the party in government, often with qualms because they told themselves they were opting for “the lesser evil,” are therefore those who represented us, the people, by determining the party whose leaders will rule us as they think best. The minor figures seated in parliament as members of the victorious party will of course be good boys and gals, dancing to the leadership’s pipe, and so all is well and very democratic. 

Is it surprising that an increasing number of people in Europe, and not only in Europe are fed up with this game? Fed up with what amounts to a mere pretention that the people is represented?

Señor Savater of course knows that things are not perfect.  “A perfect democracy?”, he asks. “Of course it doesn’t exist. But what is [ever] perfect? Nothing is perfect […]” This is wonderfully philosophical.
Because nothing is ever perfect, leave things as they are. Derrida was a little bit more critical when he spoke of democracy as an asymptotic, unfinishable process. We do not have to believe in ultimate, static perfection in order to demand democratization, steps in the good and reasonable direction, away from the present malaise.

Like Popper, that arch-conservative, Savater speaks of “the enemies of the democratic society.” And it seems that he has not those in mind who rely on secrecy, intransparency, surveillance of dissidents, backroom decisions, collusion with media czars and generally big business. No, he seems to have in mind the protest movement, the indignant ones who demand “real democracy, yes!”

Today, as climate change accelerates and threatens to become irreversible, as the attack on social advances of the populace picks up speed, whereas widespread distrust in politician rapidly undermines their legitimacy, Señor Savater tells us, that “Right now, the major value, the great virtue, is patience.” We wonder who will listen to him? The pensioners who see their meagre pensions eroded? The young who cannot find a job? Or the investors, or S&P and the others who are at the forefront of the attack on the “creditworthiness,” as they call it, of Spain, Portugal, Italy, Greece?  We can rest assured, the media – among them El País – will continue to offer him a forum, the political class will see itself justified by a “renowned philosopher” and, if we don’t encourage them, perhaps this and that poor old pensioner, this and that young woman or man looking in vain for a job, will fall silent and submit to what is not fate but the outcome of a political and economic game that never was and never will be fair. 

Perhaps the economic game and the democratic game could never be kept separate. The “elite” doesn’t keep the two spheres separate, so why should we, the common people? We must continue to ask for sweeping change, in both spheres. Perhaps Savater was right in linking his defense of culture as a good for sale to his defense of the democratic game as it is played today. We must link that, too, friends, but change the evaluation. What Savater critiques is what we embrace: A free culture that is not commodified. What he applauds, we critique: A representative democracy that effectively disempowers the people.


* This quote and the following quotations have been translated by me. For the Spanish quotes, see: Juan Cruz, “Que ‘Etica para Amador’ en 2011?”, in: El País, 14.7.2011, S.36-37.

** Of course, Savater is free to disagree with the indignados. As a liberal with social-democratic as well as “free-market” sympathies, he is however hardly the unbiased ethical philosopher some take him to be. Of course, it is easy to agree with his anti-militarism. His critique of nationalism deserves sympathies. But he was always unfair with regard to one of the few organizations that put up decisive resistance against the Franco regime and that was cunningly marginalized by the EU- and US-engineered “transition,” a fact which is at the root of its later, in many ways irrational and despaired reaction. And he fails to understand socio-cultural resistance against the subversion of regional cultural identities by the centralist state and by the forces of globalization. His fear of totalitarian tendencies has produced blind spots. He does not recognize the totalitarianism of the market and its radical advocates, nor that of the market-driven mass media today. 





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Inés Benítez, "Spain:
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Tito Drago,"'Indignant' 
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Tito Drago, "Spain: Streets Paved 
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Students in Chile are protesting 
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