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.

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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 appears in the 01 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Scots are coming!