In Portugal, People are Now Saying “Fuck That!”: An interview with RDA69

RDA69 came together as an answer to several questions: some people were looking into ways of furthering the political activities they had then been discussing for a few years, others felt a common space would allow them to pursue a more autonomous and happier life, others still were looking for a different platform from where to organize politically. Most of the people had been involved with autonomous spaces before, either in squats or similar spaces in Portugal or abroad, but felt the need to respond, in an immediate and simple manner, to the lack of physical space to organize, meet and discuss common interests. What set RDA69 apart from other spaces and projects was that from the beginning a choice was made that its assembly would host people with different backgrounds and collective experiences, trying to break away from whatever clique one was originally in.

It seemed stupid that in such a small scene everything would still be so framed by political and ideological identities. People came from the anarchist and squatting scenes, from autonomist and pro-situ publishing houses, from ecologist collectives and even from some parts of the institutional left. Others just joined because they felt it made sense in their lives to get involved in a project like RDA69, without having a particular ideological niche to call their own. Also discussed in the beginning was that RDA69 would host initiatives from all kinds of people and collectives that were active in the burgeoning social movements, regardless of smaller, or even considerable, political differences people in the collective would have regarding those. Behind this was the thought that RDA69 shouldn’t serve as the means of social reproduction of a defined clique, but as a place for these movements to grow, discuss and mature. The challenge posed by these choices has proved sometimes difficult, but quite interesting. It’s fairly obvious to those who come by, and for ourselves, that things have changed, and that RDA69 contributed to a reformulation of an anti-authoritarian political space that goes well beyond sect politics. And that the existence of this space created a new crossroads for discussion around the movements fighting austerity, even if it serves as a place where people disagree as much as they agree.

As time went by and the popularity of the space grew, it gradually became more evident that in fact those typical activities [that take place at a social center] were secondary and an accessory to the main activity which takes place in RDA69: that of meeting and talking with other people. So things progressed naturally from having a cultural calendar to relying less on activities and more on the space being open and available. Parties, discussions and such become variations of the modes of meeting – in the sense of interacting with – but they were still meetings. This came about also with the questioning of social centers’ role as cultural hubs. We felt we wanted RDA69 to be not so much the nth variation on the underground cultural market, but something that dealt with other issues, and also that we ourselves didn’t want to be exclusively curators. So a shift naturally came towards organizing and hosting activities that would more directly talk to a need of autonomy that each of us felt daily, and to a choice of organizing politically beyond the folklore of protest and activism. This search for the social center to provide a material autonomy, and not just a cultural one, has been one of the things we’ve been talking and thinking about the most (which translates to installing small workshops of carpentry, welding and bicycle repair, etc).

RDA69’s growth in attendance and notoriety was contemporaneous with the growth of anti-austerity social movements in the last two years, and in that process it became part of a network that both overcame and outgrew its origins as a place deeply rooted within specific activist and political milieus. This said, that network does not have clearly identified borders and tends to be dynamic, evolving according to political events, specific strategic choices or needs imposed by the struggle against repression. Even though most of us have individual connections with other projects around the world, we have so far been unable to give them a collective dimension and turn them into an actual network.

Over the last two years RDA has been continually referred to by several newspapers as the secret HQ of everyone involved in any of the numerous anti-austerity protests. Often when police arrest someone the press comes out saying that person belongs to RDA69, even if most of the time said person doesn’t even know what RDA is. This follows a strategy of criminalization of protest, connecting their radicalization with the actions of a small number of radicals, when really what’s happening is simply that people are getting fed up and are losing faith in traditional forms of political participation.

Portugal’s geographic location obviously explains its peripheral situation regarding Europe’s economic and political hubs. But more than that, this feeling of cultural isolation was fostered by the fascist regime’s ideology that stated the uniqueness of the Portuguese identity and culture as a result of its colonial enterprises, characterized by its ability to produce ethnic melting points (like Brazil), and to reach out to different cultures (like India or China), which made it distinct from European or Western identities due to its universalist vocation. Salazar often stated that Portugal was “proudly alone” in Europe. While the Carnation Revolution, the independence of the former colonies, and the integration in the European Union obviously shifted this discourse into a pro-European stand, the idea still lingers that Portuguese identity is quite specific.

But as a whole, one could state that the isolation you speak of is mostly a result of material conditions. You’ve met mostly Portuguese comrades that are hardly representatives of the Portuguese political and social context. Air travel costs a lot, and most of the Portuguese population is unable to travel abroad. Beyond that, it appears only natural that a small country such as Portugal, where no major historical events have taken place in the last decades, is only important for the Portuguese. We feel exactly the opposite of what your last question suggests: it’s because its political culture and dynamics have been quite so uninteresting that the country appears to be isolated and peripheral. One only needs to look at Greece to observe how it is no longer isolated and peripheral, precisely because events started to unfold.

All that is being said and written in the media – by government officials and big businesses and opinion-makers alike – is that the country’s problems have domestic roots and are due to a lack of budget control, productivity and competitiveness. Right now, the face of austerity is the government and the troika (the International Monetary Fund, European Central Bank and European Commission), so people are pretty much struggling against them. Whether or not they “consider themselves actors, protagonists in a resistance movement to an international crisis in capitalism” is something completely different and impossible to determine. Most likely some do and some don’t.

Attempts have been made to give the movement a more internationalist stand, but they remain very limited. In general, internationalism flows along the political affinities and identities of old: political parties that share common positions support each other in elections (PCP and KKE, Bloco de Esquerda and Syriza); trade-unions sign common texts for a new European industrial policy; anarchists demonstrate in solidarity when a comrade is arrested in a different country; and so on, but it’s all much less than what would be necessary in such a moment. The November 14th general strike had limited international coordination, and it appears that the Portuguese trade-union CGTP (linked to the Portuguese Communist Party) only accepted it to be international because it was the first organization to call for it, obviously as a national general strike (the 3rd in a year, and the 6th in the last decade*). In general, the movement in Portugal – and even more the left parties and the trade-unions – reason in national terms. We believe that it is as much a consequence as it is a reason for the situation you speak of in the previous question. Unfortunately, populist nationalist themes insinuate themselves constantly, including inside the movement against austerity. Most recently, for instance, the CGTP Secretary General compared the troika to the Three Wise Kings during a union rally, calling the IMF representative in Portugal, Abele Selassié (who is Ethiopian), the “little dark one”.

Some people are trying to counter-act the rise in populist nationalist discourse as a response to the crisis and some aren’t.

In general, CGTP represents workers with long term contracts and who are covered by collective bargaining, mostly in the public and transportation sector. Each social movement has its own appreciation of the role of CGTP and the tactics that follow. As a whole, the relation is difficult, unless of course you accept to work according to their own methods and goals. It have been mainly those groups/collectives guided by Bloco de Esquerda (namely Precários Inflexíveis) that have been interested in doing so. Most of the workers and unemployed are participating in the demonstrations outside any kind of structure.

Some companies (namely the electricity company, where the state owned only a golden-share) have been bought by a Chinese state-owned bank, whereas companies owned by relatives of the Angolan president Eduardo dos Santos, or by state-owned SONANGOL (an oil company), have been making big investments in the financial and media sector. The only resistance to privatizations so far has been by the public television/radio network (RTP/RDP), whose Workers’ Committee has some historically far left militants; a spontaneous sit-in by workers of the public air transportation company (TAP), who blocked the exit of the company’s facilities for an entire day; and by postal workers (CTT), who have been delaying the negotiation of future collective deals with the company administration until the terms of the announced privatization of CTT are clear.

Everything costs more, due to raised taxes on consumption, namely all things related to energy (gas, electricity), but also tobacco and food. The construction sector is clearly the most affected one, since it had grown a lot during the previous years, boosted by big public works (highways, urban development, public infrastructures, football stadiums, etc.) and by the real estate credit bubble. Tourism is also in crisis, due to the crisis in Spain, but it has somehow been compensated by the growth of Northern European tourists and travelers. Most cuts are occurring in the national health system and in the school system and transportation sector.

One could suggest that the reason the myth of Portuguese “passivity” became effective was due to the dismantlement of the metropolitan areas beginning in the early eighties – the abandonment of Lisbon was not due to emigration but due to a mass relocation to new suburbs – and the destruction of the social and class ties that emerge naturally in more populated urban areas rather than in atomized suburbs. In fact, even if the center of Lisbon has only about 545,000 people, its metropolitan area has about 2,500,000 people, most of them working in and using the city without living there. On other hand, it has been suggested that emigration is one of the reasons for social peace, in the same way that the wide availability of land prevented major social unrest in the US. Both explanations have their faults, and even if pertinent to a point, serve rather to mask the bloody and brutal repression of several struggles. That said, emigration is fairly different today: the Portuguese emigrant is no longer an unskilled laborer that upon resettlement follows a dream of upward social mobility, but rather an urban precarious worker that will remain an urban precarious worker anywhere he moves.

There is always danger ahead. We coordinate as much as we can and we try to keep in touch [with comrades in other parts of the country]. We have squatted in Lisbon in solidarity with evicted squatters in Porto. Keep in mind that there are only two big cities in Portugal and that, historically, what happens in them determines what happens in the country. This said, we are obviously interested in what other people are doing, be it in southern Portugal or northern Morocco. And the fact that so many people come to live in Lisbon from outer regions makes it easy to maintain a close contact with several other small cities.

We have always been interested in following and discussing the events you speak of [Greek insurrection, Arab Spring, indignados, Occupy], inviting people who participated in them to share their experiences. We are, broadly speaking, interested in developing forms of political action that go beyond national borders and context, taking in account experiences in other parts of the world. We share your feeling that such multiplication of struggles, uprisings and mass movements have been inspiring, but its still rather early to have a strong opinion regarding were all this might be going. One thing is sure, there are as many reasons to be wary as to be inspired.

One could talk about different legacies and memories concerning the revolutionary period. On one hand the state has always promoted it as almost an historical event that quickly and painlessly dealt with some less charming aspects of the authoritarian state. On the other hand the institutional left – which still resembles the shapes it took during the revolution – claims the revolution as the experience that legitimizes its own existence and methods. A third memory of the revolution goes beyond both the state’s and the institutional left’s perspective, to focus on the numerous examples of people organizing to take control of their lives through factory and housing occupations and general autonomous organizing, and this experience was perhaps the most widespread and the least talked about. The memory of the revolution fails its purpose when it does nothing more than re-enact an aesthetics of political participation that methodologically has little to no relevance today. This pushes towards a resistance stance, where we’d be struggling for the rights and victories of the revolution, when what is needed is to go beyond that, to find new lines for a new offensive. Furthermore, most of the actors that claim its inheritance are not interested in discussing what actually happened during those months, or questioning their own role in it. We have thus a highly superficial account of the revolution, that makes it seem as distant and unreal as if it had happened on a different planet. The fact that the most basic democratic rights were for such a long time denied makes for a difficulty in questioning them and the general folklore around them. The relationship between the PCP and the movement is marked by suspicion and hostility, due to its long tradition of sectarianism and authoritarianism. In general, they will fight all that they can’t control, and even went so far as to cooperate with the police to isolate and encircle other demonstrators. Some violence has also occurred, even though nothing that can be compared to what happened in Greece, for instance. Regarding the Bloco de Esquerda (Left Bloc), they basically try to do the same, but with less people, skills and motivation. If the PCP has a lot of members but not that much support from young people, Bloco de Esquerda tends towards the opposite: very few and quite inactive militants, a lot of professional staff members (paid for by state support to elected members of the parliament), and quite ridiculous attempts to build simulacra of social movements in order to gain influence among the masses. Of course, it’s not represented in government, but it maintains an ambiguous stand regarding the Socialist Party (mainly its allegedly dissident left-wing, which is often referred to but seldom seen, unless, of course, when its time to go back to government), and the project of a “big left” to govern the country. It will hardly ever be the equivalent to SYRIZA, and since its anti-capitalism is mostly determined by the idea that the state should make capitalism a bit less unfair, it’s very easy to present a different approach on the matter.

Lisbon had a small squatting scene in the 90s, heavily inspired by what was happening in other European countries, such as Spain, Holland and England. However it never reached more than a small group of people, mainly because of these three reasons: legally it wasn’t as easy as in the aforementioned countries, meaning you were never sure if you were going to be kicked out the next day and face a legal procedure afterward; secondly, people never managed to gather any social support for their actions, nor construct any kind of serious movement that would create any kind of political pressure that might prevent evictions; finally, most of these projects never went beyond the goal of serving as spaces of social reproduction for subcultural cliques – even though they were important in shaping an anarchist/autonomist scene that questioned the former anarchist practices of reading Proudhon in a dusty basement, mixing it with heterogeneous elements, and leaving the armchairs. In the last few years several occupations took place, the most successful one happening in Oporto, of a former public school. But repression came down even harder, since these have a more open political stance, and do objectively support radical movements. The question of how to conquer spaces and to organize has been a central one in the last few months, and people seem to be investing more thought into these possibilities. However some of the problems still remain, the first being the unhelpful legal context, the other being a general lack of modus operandi regarding how to squat, occupy, and manage a space.

“Frustration” fails to grasp our feeling. We are enthusiastic about the demonstrations, even if we feel that there is much to be done to make them more interesting, more spontaneous and more frequent, without any kind of leadership on them.

The issue here is not about a lack of coordination, but about a lack of a critical mass.

Major protests have come by in the last few years, some attaining surprising numbers for the Portuguese context (the largest yet being the 15th of September 2012, with close to one million people gathering in different cities around the country). The thing is that these numbers are circumstantial, they do not reveal real potent movements, but a sense of timing of those calling out for the demonstration. This has a bitter-sweet flavor to it: if on one hand the large protest phenomenon has left the field of organized political parties, with their own agendas and bureaucratic structures, it has come to the hands of small groups of activists which alternate internet call-outs, that with some sense of context and a reasonable streak of luck sometimes blow up to a protest of unattained dimensions. There is not a scene of neighborhood assemblies, or rogue unions (with the honorable exception of the dockers) backing these protests, and although this quasi-spontaneous feeling can be quite interesting, the streets lack consequence and operativeness. This is one of the reasons the attempts of coordination end up deflating on their own, because they are attempts to coordinate different “protest call-out” groups, a handful of activists and militants gathered around different dates, and not really living and flourishing social movements. Also, these attempts have been taken on as authoritarian drifts by some of these groups, bringing back the ghost of party bureaucracy. In this sense, even the established parties have a better understanding of today’s rules of the game, having satellite groups opening pseudo-autonomous spaces, or covertly participating in the internet call-out groups. On the other hand, the hot moments of protest have been taken away from traditional activists and black bloc protesters, into the hands of an angry multitude. Maybe the despair that has been giving room for this multitude to take the streets will come to give a place for its self-organization. In fact, in the last demonstrations it was possible to observe an unspoken and spontaneous organization amongst the different groups and individuals that are not related to the most bureaucratic structures, helping and defying (in the good sense) each other, in what could be a glimpse of the necessary cooperation beyond the street and the demonstrations.

More and more people see with more and more clarity what the police is, what it exists for and how it acts when its authority is challenged. There is an old Pasolinian stand inside the movement, shared by trade-unions and other activists, which claims that police are only workers in uniform who are doing their job and that we should always blame the government for any abuse, while respecting the institution. It has always been the dominant approach to police brutality and social repression. Luckily, and due to the latest clashes in demonstrations, a lot of people are now saying “fuck that!”

*Since we conducted this interview, Portugal had another general strike on June 27th, 2013.