Conversations about the little things
This is a conversation between Claudia Delso Carreira (City Councillor of the Marea Atlántica government from 2015 to 2019 in the City Council of A Coruña) and Celtia Traviesas Méndez (former member of the Podemos en Europa delegation).
Claudia: After four years working within the local public institution, the feeling of having time, having a life and making space for small and seemingly insignificant things means that I can relate to politics in a different way. With this new distance, everything political seems less urgent – a commonplace, slow affair. Only now am I starting to appreciate so deeply all of the invisible, transversal root work that gets carried out with a long term plan in mind.
When asked to share some thoughts on this period of time, the first thing that came to mind was a series of intertwined conversations that took place over the course of my time there as well as the article Chegar para que cheguemos todas (Seize power so that we all can seize it), by Celtia from Marea Atlántica, which I think summarises very well some of the thoughts that occurred to many of us on the march forward.
We decided to put our heads together and basically think out loud for this article, sharing and reflecting in the form of a dialogue.
Celtia: Without a doubt, there is something subtle and beautiful that gets gradually revealed, like when developing photo negatives, through conversations held by women all around the world. Among us women who have been on the front lines of municipal governments throughout Spain (A Coruña, Barcelona, Cádiz, Zaragoza, Santiago de Compostela, Mardid, etc.), conversations tend to bring light to something small and seemingly insignificant, as you say, but eminently political. Something that remains hidden in collective conversations that include our male colleagues as well.
The first time I spoke with you, I could really feel how the invisible can take centre stage over the course of a conversation. It was in your office in City Hall – you literally opened the doors to that space with its high ceilings. I had gone there to interview you for my Master’s thesis in which I tried to link the experience of the urban commons with that inspiring, revolutionary peculiarity that we have had in rural Galicia for centuries: communal management of surrounding mountain areas.
Although that morning was the first time that we spoke, we chatted about politics in a very personal way. I felt privileged to listen to you speak so clearly about the difficulties involved in handing over power and to be reminded that, despite all of the mistakes and difficulties, we had made it. We’d made our way into the institutions so we could transform them. And yet it was clear that there was something more familiar that we had not been able to change in our own organisations: the traditional exertion of power and leadership.
Claudia: I think about that now clichéd feminist saying “the personal is political”, which it is, of course, but to what extent? This is difficult to discuss, to give space and importance to, since it entails, among other things, complicating things. Accepting that reality is complex. Much more complex than the most-read political theories would lead you to believe (almost all of which are written by men, incidentally). Complex because reality is something that is lived and what is lived is full of nuance and intensity. Something that comes up for me these days has to do with having lost something close to me. I don’t want to go off on a detailed tangent, but I mention this here precisely because it seems like it is not the right place. Fragility, fears, vulnerability, grief and everything that does not fit into the world of politics. Are these things excluded from new politics as well?
During my four years on the front lines, I have felt physically blocked in my diaphragm – the wide muscle located between the chest and abdomen, which rhythmically contracts and relaxes to help us breathe air into and out of our lungs. I had bronchitis four times and pneumonia once and even had to begin using a night guard to sleep. But the strain placed on my body didn’t just come from the daily management of a councillorship that we built up from nothing, tackling the million and one exciting challenges it presented – challenges which were often rife with problems caused by the datedness of the institution itself. What strained my body the most was observing, enduring and participating in the traditional exertion of power and, in turn, one of its more unpleasant outcomes: power struggles. I resigned myself to thinking that politics could only be approached with a mindset that polarises, excludes and rejects otherness.
I keep asking myself why we have not been able to change our approach in a way that is much more tangible than just a weaving a narrative. Or at least why we haven’t made a more heartfelt attempt to do so.
Celtia: I think that we have not been able to make this change because our political spaces, which we have designated as “prone to fractures”, are not at all feminist spaces. We may raise the flag and govern for greater equality, but the feminist semantics still have not taken root in these spaces. The language of care that we use, the way we talk about feelings, about complexity, about humanity, is strongly opposed by our peers. I believe they consider it to be completely pre-political, though they rarely admit that openly.
That is exactly what I tried to explain in that article of mine you mentioned before. The big problem with the greco-roman tradition that we still drag around with us as we talk about and engage in politics is not just that it is a tradition in which we women do not exist, but that this tradition built the concepts of public speaking and public discourse on the uniquely masculine attributes closely tied to said tradition. Most of our male colleagues are not ready to surrender those concepts. Doing so requires a deep personal reckoning.
Claudia: My intuition tells me that empathy and kindness can help us get out of the space that we are cornered into by the mechanics of power. Through recognition and through self-exploration, through letting ourselves be affected, through commitment. By weaving and building in-between spaces, shared spaces free of polarisation and violence, where different views and opinions can be included . It’s all about looking at the complex grey scale that we are and that surrounds us.
One of the unresolved challenges we’re still working on is how to deepen and practise feminised and feminist politics when exercising power – not only within the institutions but also in our own organisations. I would call everything that is referred to as “new politics” a duty. That vast, diverse and multiform space that has arisen in Spain since 2011 and the anti-austerity movement, from that movement of outraged people who took to the streets en masse in a time of crisis, covered in slogans like “real democracy now” that were perhaps naive but also radical in their approach. Without a doubt, one thing that we did very well was creating and communicating a story: we dismantled the political status quo so that we, as leaders, could return the institutions to the 99%. We have collectively created a narrative that is epic, compelling, and richly woven but which is in my view also incredibly self-indulgent, considering that we have focused our political communication efforts on feeding this narrative rather than addressing the underlying institutional dysfunction and focusing on other realities and discourses.
Celtia: The freshness of inexperience in government tasks is valuable. However, I agree that we were self-indulgent to a certain extent. In addition, it is important to keep in mind that experiences of radical municipalism have existed before, though perhaps only occasionally. Nevertheless they do exist, and we need to know how to recognise them, even when they arise in areas that do not fit our ideology.
More and more I go back to the basics. I think we need to dismantle our commitment to rhetoric. Engaging in commons-oriented politics does not mean talking about the commons; more than anything, it means being part of a community and fulfilling the collective requirements and needs of the community. If this happens, the rest will fall into place. But if the foundation is unstable, every policy that is introduced will fail.
I always talk about that May in 2015, when many of you were celebrating the dismantling of the political status quo in different cities around Spain. I was in a small mountain city which had seen no political alternation since 1936. Being a part of the left in that town – my mother’s hometown – was stigmatised until a 25-year-old woman, against all odds, won the election and brought in democracy, though almost 40 years late. She became the mayor, a woman from the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party, a party that we consider part of the regime. Nevertheless, what she did was valuable: she faced the fears and silences of her small rural community and convince the people to challenge established power. Four years have passed, and her marginal victory has grown into an enormous absolute majority. And do you know who supports her? A list of (almost exclusively) women. Having a broader view and forging alliances with political innovations in other parts of the world should not mean closing one’s eyes to the things that are close and small and that some even consider politically vulgar, from that self-indulgent point of view.
That said, our arrival in the institutions was like opening the windows in a stuffy room that the traditional parties had been building for decades. Something refreshing, happy and new permeated everything in 2015.
Claudia: When shifting the focus towards the little things, the image of a group of ants and the way they work comes to my mind. And I think about the persistent and thorough work of feminism. We are very lucky to be surrounded and challenged by female thinkers, economists, artists and feminist philosophers who are articulating today’s thoughts and politics for tomorrow. I think about them. I think about the women who support the invisible economy of care. I think about the children that are growing up on a planet plagued by extinction. I think about meetings we held outside so that we could get some air. I think about the playground that we remodelled thanks to the efforts of a group of mothers. I think about the project “O noso patio” (Our Schoolyard), in which a school community in the Monte Alto neighbourhood of A Coruña dreamed of a new, greener playground with spaces to hide and crawl around – and it was more inclusive so that children with autism would also feel comfortable. These projects helped us to listen. They contributed to the learning process of the institution, a machine designed to prevent change. After all, the institution can also learn, and we have learned to allow the institutions (and ourselves) to experiment, to change how things are done and also to make mistakes.
Nobody can expect to know or control everything.
In thinking about what we understand as a life worth living, to paraphrase economic feminist Amaia Pérez Orozco, we could also think about politics worth politicising.
Featured image: A model of “O noso patio” (Our Schoolyard), a project mentioned in the text.
Photo: Sandra G.Rey