Interview: Tomás Ibáñez on power and modern anarchy

In this interview translated by the Autonomies collective, One of Spain’s most interesting modern thinkers on anarchism, Tomás Ibáñez, outlines some of the thinking from his book Anarchism is Movement, which Freedom is publishing in English later this month.

A child of Spanish anarchist exiles in France, Ibáñez began his political journey in French anarchist youth groups and with his fellow exiled Spanish youth.  From the beginning of the 1960s through to the early 1980s his energies were dedicated to the construction of libertarian organisations, the anti-Franco struggle and the reconstruction of the anarchist CNT union in 1976.

Ibáñez has authored numerous essays about dissidence, anarchism and the struggle against domination, and in Anarchism is Movement he reviews the presence of anarchist ideals and principles in our times. Ibáñez analyses the resurgence of anarchism in the 21st century particularly in Spain, and how it has permeated the struggles of social movements, from 15M to the expansion of self-managed social centres, consumer co-operatives and networks of alternative economies. 

This interview originally took place in 2014, around the time political party Podemos emerged from the 15M movement. Presciently, he calls attention to the dangers confronting these movements in the passage to electorally-based struggles, many of which have been borne out in the recent Spanish election which has seen compromise and a steadily declining vote.[i]

“The siren calls that once announced radiant new dawns have passed”, you say in your book. Is it no longer possible to hope for liberation, for “anarchy” as an end state of affairs, as once proposed?

Those siren calls suggested, in the more or less distant future, a reward that struggles for freedom would receive – one so fantastic that it led us to evaluate struggles according to how far they brought us towards the promised Utopia. 

It is no longer possible to maintain this type of discourse, which clearly had something of a religious nature; today we have learned that the value of struggles doesn’t depend on the promises they make, but resides rather in their very occurrence, in their substantive characteristics, and in what they permit us to create in the present. The extinction of these calls puts an end to this fascination for the promised land, and subordination of the journey to its outcome, but this tells us nothing about whether or not it is possible to one day arrive at an anarchist type of society. 

Independently of whether or not it is possible, anarchy resides not in the future, but in the present, in every struggle, in every achievement that reflects its principles. With the extinction of the siren calls, the belief in the abrupt advent of a society that moves towards anarchy on the ruins of the collapse of the current system also dies. That grand and final revolutionary eruption which carries with it some definitive liberation is a myth, so too is the vision of a society free from conflicts, tensions, struggles a myth. There is no radiant dawn at the end of the journey, because there is no journey with an end; each dawn must be fought for day by day, again and again. 

This of course does not mean that it is not necessary to cultivate Utopia, but this last is acceptable only with the understanding that it serves merely as a guide to act in the present rather than as a pre-figuration of the end that will one day be reached.

You maintain that “anarchism resurges in the 21st century, that it re-invents itself”.  What qualities does it leave behind and which have appeared?

To the extent that anarchism forges itself in the heart of struggles against domination, it is logical that it changes alongside them, to be able to continue to respond to new apparatuses of power. What anarchism opposes changes and this changes anarchism.  What contemporary anarchism leaves behind, among other things, is a collection of ideas shaped by Modernity, such as an unshakeable faith in progress, an non-critical elevation of Reason, an overly simple conception of power, practices consistent with an emphasis placed on the central importance of labour. It also leaves behind a revolutionary imaginary constructed around the great proletarian insurrection. 

The anarchism which gains form is one more tactical than strategic, more focused on the present than Utopianism, where what is more important is isolated, local, limited, but radical subversion, of the apparatuses of domination and the creation here and now of practices and spaces that ground revolution in the present, radically transforming the subjectivities of those who develop them.  What also characterises contemporary anarchism is less closing in upon itself and a greater openness to construct, together with other traditions that are not specifically anarchist, a series of projects and common struggles.     

You state that anarchism “is a thing of today, of here and now”.  In what way does it currently manifest itself, in our neighbourhoods?

Anarchism has involved itself in the attempt to construct a neighbourhood reality comprised of concrete realisations, such as consumer, production, education co-operatives, occupied social centres, libraries, networks of alternative economies.  One must not forget that the destruction of neighbourhood life has been one of the factors that has taken strength away from anarchism to the extent that it is precisely at the neighbourhood level where transversal relations can be created that question different apparatuses of domination, and not only those that are to be found in the ambit of work.

You also make reference to the “guardians of the temple”, who court an “embalmed anarchism”, against threats to the survival of anarchism.  Who are the “guardians of the temple”?  What anarchism do they pretend to preserve against the forces of change?

I say in the book that for some time I warred against the “guardians of the temple” and, in effect, during the years of my most intense anarchist militancy, that is, from the beginning of the 1960s until the 1980s, they were serious problem in the heart of the libertarian movements in France, Italy or Spain, to cite but the examples that I more familiar with. 

Their desire to preserve the purity of inherited anarchism, to avoid any contamination by ideas or practices that that came from outside, their faith, almost religious, in the unquestionable superiority of anarchism, and their dedication to the task of overseeing the immutability of its essence, closed them in a dogmatism and a sectarianism incompatible with any minimally anarchist sensibility.  The expulsions, the disqualifications, the splits were frequent.  Today, the very force of change has emptied sectarian proclivities of any energy and the “guardians of the temple” no longer represent a major problem, though it is worth remaining attentive to eventual reappearances of fundamentalist attitudes.

What can anarchism bring to current social movements?

A great deal.  Anarchism can supply the long experience that it has accumulated in relation to modes of operation that these movements are presently trying to reinvent: ways of debating, deciding, and acting based on direct democracy, horizontality, respect for minorities, the permanent refusal of delegated authority, direct action, etc. 

It may also strengthen them in the suspicion that they demonstrate in relation to the exercise of power, or in their mistrust of “representation”.  It is worth recalling as regards this point the way in which Michel Foucault denounced “the indignity of speaking in the name of another”.  To the extent that the historical memory of countless struggles that emerged “from below” have settled in the heart of anarchism, and to the extent that historical experiences and knowledges help to better understand the present, it is obvious that anarchism can be of great utility to emerging movements.  Lastly, anarchism can also reveal itself useful in making evident, in a critical way, the errors that it has committed under the folds of its own flag.

And what current practices of social movements can inscribe themselves in the principles of anarchism?

Horizontalism, the manner in which debates are conducted, proposals elaborated, decisions taken, the emphasis placed on the “pre-figurative” character that must impregnate the contents and the forms of struggle, that is, an insistence that the practices we develop must not contradict the ends that are sought.  It is also necessary to mention the practice of direct action and skepticism in relation to mediation, the criticism of the delegation of power and of representation, or the rejection of centralisation and vanguardism, without forgetting the aversion to all forms of domination, etc.

Was there anarchism in the emergence of 15M?

There was, of course.  I fully subscribe to the words of (political journalist) Rafael Cid when he referred to it as an “unexpected libertarian spring”.  From the moment that the only legitimate political subject was the very people who were present in the squares and implicated in the struggle, at the margin of any organisation exterior to itself, we were already fully within the heart of anarchist principles. 

If we add to this the rejection of all representation that manifested itself with an impressive force, the anarchist characteristics of the movement made themselves even more evident.  From my own understanding of anarchism, the very fact that identitarian displays, even anarchist, reinforces the anarchist character of 15M.  To know whether or not anarchism, today, is present in 15M is something which is beyond me because I have not followed the most recent evolution of the movement closely enough; however, I sense that its heterogeneous and polymorphous character will have preserved anarchist enclaves.

Sants, Barcelona Pic: John PX

Does what happened in Can Vies (in the Sants neighbourhood of Barcelona), in which the occupiers, with their neighbours, continued to work at the margins of what perhaps the municipality desired (for example, rebuilding the centre), reflect the survival of anarchist ideas?

More than the survival of anarchist ideas, what is manifest in the events in Sants is the coming together of, or the harmony between, on the one hand, some of the characteristics of anarchism and, on the other, types of practices that developed, and that continue to develop, in the Can Vies conflict.  Harmony also with the sensibility that is evident in many elements of collectives who are protagonists in the current insubordination of a political and social nature. 

The open assemblies, the refusal to negotiate what is considered non-negotiable, the rejection of any compromise that implies participation in the system and submission to its logic, the fusion of the existential and the political, that is, the non-separation between the way of life and of being, on the one hand, and political practices, on the other, the direct action manifest even in the decision to not leave in the hands of others the reconstruction of the edifice; all of this creates strong resonances between anarchism and what has happened in Can Vies.  The survival, even, the strength of anarchism in Barcelona in the heart of some young collectives made itself evident in the conflicts fed by, in part, the columns of humanity that flowed towards Sants from various neighbourhoods.

In one passage in the book you affirm that “struggling against the State also consists of changing things from ‘below’, through local practices”.  In the last few years, various experiments in self-management and social movements, like the PAH, have exercised a counter-power to the State. If these opt for an electoral path, do they run the risk of losing their emancipatory strength?

From my perspective, the danger is evident.  Integration into the system, assuming some of its practices and acquiring some portions of power, with the laudable purpose of combating it and transforming it from within, deactivates sooner or later the strength of any emancipatory politics.  

This has nothing to do with the well-known dictum “power corrupts …”, but rather “to arrive at power, one must already be corrupted”; there is no other way to arrive, because there is no path to power that does not imply practices that are more or less unjust, as well as various compromises and losses of greater or lesser significance.  It is for this reason that I am such a fervent defender of the exercise of “counter-power”, as I am a virulent critic of “popular power”.  The fact of demanding and working for the consolidation of this last leads almost always to electoral politics, and therefore, the question arises, “What then becomes of the slogan that “they don´t represent us”, or the legitimate cry, “que se vayan todos”?

In line with what you have just said, if social movements and groups with horizontal, assembly and self-management practices arrive at “power”, take the institutions of power, can they lose these characteristics?

It is not that they can lose these characteristics; it is that they inevitably lose them.  One never “takes” power, it is power that “takes us”, for as Agustin Garcia Calvo used to say so well, “the enemy is inscribed in the very form of its weapons”. To use them is to recognise its victory and adopt its form. 

One need not have studied a great deal of psychology and sociology to know that immersion in a specific context, and the assumption of practices peculiar to it, affects the way of being and thinking of anyone who accepts it.  To be able to justify one´s own conduct, it is necessary to match prior ideas with the practices put into effect, thereby ignoring the inseparable symbiosis between ideas and practices defended by anarchism, and thus forgetting the famous graffiti painted on the walls of Paris in 1968 that said: “Act as you think or you will end up thinking as you act”. 

The kind of movement that you refer to in your question will never assume the move towards the conquest of power if it is animated by the profound conviction that no exercise of power will ever be able to engender a space of freedom.

Anarchism is Movement is due to be released later this month. In the run-up to launch Freedom is offering 20% off.


[i] The most obvious example, in Spain, is the political party, podemos.

Autonomies, in an earlier incarnation, as Autonomy, had occasion to translate an article by Ibáñez from the 1980s.  Click here.