Juggling as revolutionary praxis: a symbol of Spain's divided left.
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Send in the clowns: Podemos' former comrades are a class act

Perhaps clowns aren't the most obvious warriors for social justice, but the canivalesque has always been part of public folk culture.

I wasn’t going to turn down the invitation to a conference in Seville called “Caring for the City: Reclaiming the Commons”. It promised to combine so many of my interests: reclaiming public space, the successful anti-eviction group “PAH” and arguments advanced by David Harvey and Anna Minton on late capitalism’s assault on civic democracy. Also, tapas.

It was only when I touched down in Andalusia that the itinerary was made clear: this would not be a conventional conference but a participatory “hack-camp” – like a corporate retreat for activists. We would be put into groups, play getting-to-know-you games, enjoy “networking time” and, over three long days, create a “guerrilla campaign” to help save a local “cultural space... with particular emphasis on the circus, performing and visual arts”. My jaw dropped. I came all this way to set up a flash mob for clowns.

But what would this mean in practice? Would we have to fit the entire Spanish trade union movement into a comically small car? The night before the camp began, reclaiming the commons by drinking beer in the streets of Seville, some friends and I tried to understand our problem with clowns. For one thing, from Pagliacci to John Wayne Gacy and Sideshow Bob, clowns do not have a great record as warriors for social justice. Yet the carnivalesque has always been part of public folk culture and so, loath as I am to admit it, an injury to Koko is indeed an injury to us all.

In Spain the image of 2011’s indignados movement crystallised around a pejorative bit of slang: in long-established anti-capitalist circles, clown-friendly anarcho-squatter types are dismissed as perroflautas – literally “dog-flutes”, after their two most recognisable accessories. As anyone who has seen the Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias’s ponytail can confirm, some leading perroflautas have taken the plunge in the past 16 months and – with varying levels of optimism – swapped a spinning bow tie for a proper one.

The tension between those who have stayed put in squatted social centres and the avowedly modern electoral “project” Podemos was striking in Seville. Comrades’ eyebrows were raised when one activist darted off from our table of felt tips and scissors to take a call on her mobile. The previous day, she had been voted top of a candidate list for local elections in May. She could be the next mayor, if Participa Sevilla, a Podemos-backed project, wins. She didn’t make it back for days two and three.

The divide has created personal rifts. Telling me about a former indignados comrade, now a paid-up Podemos operative, one local anarchist said to me: “I still like him but he is in Madrid now.” This friend had been physically visiting the capital, allegedly bringing back orders to “dismantle” local indignados work. Spiritually he was deemed lost to the Podemos machine and its centralising hierarchy.

The counterargument from the electoralistas is, well, are you really going to refuse this historic opportunity? I am told one of Podemos’s top speechwriters has sharp words for his former comrades: “They will be happy just as long as they can have ‘I was pure’ written on their graves.” One 2011 indignados slogan ran “Our dreams don’t fit in your ballot boxes”. This tension looms ever larger in 2015, especially as Podemos, having led briefly, has stalled in the polls.

In the end our “guerrilla action” was terrific fun and certainly not pointless. We used helium balloons to hoist a giant banner demanding a new home for La Carpa (the circus space) in one of Seville’s abandoned public buildings. The locals loved it, we spread the word about a good cause and I even climbed down off my high horse and wore a red nose – for ten minutes, sheepishly. The commons were temporarily reclaimed by the perroflauta side of the Spanish left – and as this remarkable year wears on, we’ll see if the electoralistas can get any closer to achieving the same.

This article first appeared in the 01 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Scots are coming!

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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