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Hacker, lawyer, journalist, spy: the field dynamics of techno-political expertise in Spain’s new protest movement

January 28, 2014

John Postill
RMIT University, Melbourne

Talk to the Goldsmiths media ethnography group
Discussant: Veronica Barassi
London, 21 January 2014


In this talk I explore the key role played by computer hackers, online journalists, digital rights lawyers, internet scholars and other techno-political experts in the birth and growth of Spain’s indignados (15M) movement. In contrast to scholars such as Morozov or Gerbaudo, who tend to dismiss such specialists as deluded techno-utopians, I argue that we should take their ideals, practices and actions very seriously indeed, as the global impact of the Snowden/Greenwald NSA revelations once again confirms. Applying an upgraded version of field theory (Postill in press, Fligstein and McAdam 2012) to the Spanish materials, I focus on the intra- and inter-field dynamics of expertise in the current remaking of Spain’s indignados protest field by means of three case studies: Partido X, 15MPaRato and PAH. One intriguing question arising from the preliminary research is how protest field incumbents manage the tension between an earlier discourse around the collective intelligence of ‘networked swarms’ and a more recent emphasis on the importance of techno-political expertise to the ‘resetting’ (resetear) of Spain’s political system.

Presentation notes

Let me frame this talk by breaking up its very long title into three ideas that I want to put into conversation with one another:

1. Spain’s new protest movement, 2010-2014 (i.e. indignados/15M)

2. Field dynamics (post-Bourdieu)

3. Techno-political expertise (hacker, lawyer, journalist, spy)

Spain’s new protest movement, 2010-2014

In 2010-2011 I was conducting anthropological fieldwork in Barcelona. I was based at IN3, an internet research centre within Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC) set up by Manuel Castells. I was very fortunate to be there when a coalition of new citizens’ platforms (including NoLesVotes, Democracia Real Ya, Juventud Sin Futuro) was formed to launch a day of protest across Spain on 15 May 2011. Some of their more influential participants passed through IN3 at some point or other, and I also found them all gathered around Twitter hashtags as the preparations gathered momentum.

The 15 May marches turned into Tahrir-inspired square occupations (May-June 2011) and the indignados or 15M movement was born. Some indignados went on to co-create the Occupy movement in the US and beyond from September 2011.

What is often lost in the media accounts and popular imaginings of 15M was just how steeped in internet freedom/hacker culture ideals and practices this movement is (Postill 2013).

Although 15M has enjoyed sustained rates of approval from the Spanish population since its inception, by the end of 2011 it was clear to many of its unofficial leaders (leadership is a problematic notion among most 15Mers) that the movement would have to find ways of engaging with the country’s political institutions. As one research participant told me not long ago, surrounding Parliament is no good – you’ve got to occupy it.

One notable exception to this general lack of institutional engagement is PAH (Mortgage Victims’ Platform), a group that has scored a series of PR goals through its savvy combination of techno-political methods across the mainstream media vs. alternative/social media divide.

More recently, a number of new citizens’ parties have appeared (such as Partido X, Podemos, EnRed) that are gearing up for the European elections to be held in May 2014. These new formations are all internet and/or media savvy, and it is said that some of their methods are being ‘borrowed’ by older, more conventionally political parties such as Ciutadans.

Field dynamics (post-Bourdieu)

How can we understand Spain’s indignados/15M movement and similar waves of protest around the world in the wake of the Tunisian uprising of Dec 2010? A number of explanations have been offered, including political economy (Mason, Tejerina et al), social media to choreograph collective action (Gerbaudo), a new logic of aggregation (Juris), unstoppable information/action cascades (Tufekci), and the network society (Castells).

They all have something to teach us but my own approach builds on previous work on field theory, both mine and other people’s. Bourdieu holds no monopoly over this theory. We need a dynamic field theory fit for the 21st century.

1. Fligstein/McAdam (2011, 2012) – grand American sociological synthesis of field theory, institutional politics, social movements theory, the sociology of markets; for these authors all sorts of social formations – incl. political parties, organisations, departments, states, markets, social movements – can be understood as fields of strategic action (FSA), i.e. domains of endeavour in which variously positioned social agents struggle over an issue, cause or resource. All such fields will have their incumbents and challengers, internal governance units (usu. close to or run by the incumbents), external certifying bodies (usu. the state), inter-field dynamics, unevenly spread social skills, vertical or horizontal/coalitional relations. Abrupt change can originate within the FSA but often it comes after an external shock (invasion, economic collapse, hostile takeover, war, natural disaster), as incumbents are generally very skilled at maintaining the status quo. By contrast, ‘piecemeal change’ happens all the time, usually through the dynamic interaction of incumbents and challengers.

2. Postill (2011, in press). Via a very different route (British social anthropology with fieldwork in Malaysia and Spain) I have arrived at a strikingly similar, post-Bourdieu model of fields as domains of action (or endeavour) as Fligstein/McAdam. I’m currently beginning to integrate the two theories into a single, more robust (I hope) theory of protests as fields. One significant difference between us is that media and communication, esp. the internet, are central to my model, whereas these authors only discuss media and communication technologies in passing. Another difference is that I draw from the Manchester School of anthropology (Gluckman, Epstein, Turner, etc) for my field theory. These anthropologists encountered conditions of rapid social change in Southern Africa in the 1940s and 1950s, and came up with new concepts (field, network, social drama, arena…) to make sense of these fluid actualities on the ground. In my version of field theory, some fields can – under certain conditions – expand and contract very rapidly. To put it in media epidemiographic terms (Postill 2014), some fields of strategic action can in fact ‘go viral’, as I experienced firsthand in Spain in May 2011 with the explosive growth of the indignados FSA from several thousand enthusiasts to millions of new recruits through both offline and online means in a matter of days. In my theory, field sites come in two main varieties: stations (sites of field reproduction) and arenas (sites of field change). These are not necessarily fixed, some stations can morph into arenas for a period of time and then revert to being stations – or disappear. Fields exhibit a plurality of socialities, indeed every field site has its own unique admixture of socio-technical practices that give it a characteristic feel – which the ethnographer can report, e.g. in the field of residential politics in Subang Jaya (Malaysia), the sociality of a residents’ committee is very different from that of a neighbourhood patrol or an online forum. Careful attention to plural socialities allows us to go beyond reductionist mappings of social morphology based on one or two vague metaphors such as ‘community’ and ‘network’ (Postill 2008, 2011).

Techno-political expertise (hacker, lawyer, journalist, spy)

In his ongoing Overheating research project, the anthropologist Thomas H. Eriksen writes about the three global crises unleashed upon the world in the 1989-1991 period of geopolitical and technological change: financial/economic, climate/environmental, identity/cultural.

I would add a fourth crisis, a global information crisis, most visibly epitomised by the release of over 200,000 US State Dept cables by Wikileaks and partner media organisations in November 2010, and at present by the repercussions of Snowden’s NSA revelations in partnership with the Guardian. There is a protracted global conflict under way over internet governance, freedom of information, open access, and related issues, a conflict involving not just renowned computer specialists such as Assange, Manning, Swartz or Snowden, but also growing numbers of journalists, bloggers, lawyers, spies, artists, intellectuals, social scientists, students and others – some are well known in their own countries or internationally, others operate behind the scenes. In addition to these individual techno-political agents there are collective agents (groups, organisations, markets, etc.) involved in this multi-faceted struggle, inclusing the NSA, GCHQ, CIA, the Guardian, NYT, Electronic Frontier Foundation, etc, fighting on numerous fronts.

From 2009 this struggle has become increasingly entangled with broader national struggles over democratic freedoms and social justice, as we saw in Iceland in 2009, Tunisia 2010, Egypt 2011, Spain 2011, the US 2011, etc (Postill 2013). A number of questions arise: Who are they key individual and collective players involved in these techno-political contests (techno-political in the sense of social agents who mix their technology with their politics)? What kinds of techno-political expertise are they deploying, sharing, challenging, countering, in their social practices and collective actions? With what social and political consequences, if any?

Some examples from Spain:

Partido X-Red Ciudadana: A citizens’ initiative (or network) steeped in Spain’s internet freedom/free culture and 15M movements. Set up in early 2012. Distinguishes three main categories of contribution to the network: as participants, experts or citizens. By analogy to hacker culture, the emphasis is on doing, not talking (Linus’ famous “Talk is cheap. Show me the code”). This is a ‘doocracy’ (hacercracia). For instance, the network uses standard web forum software for one of its main collaborative spaces but they avoid the term ‘forum’ so that participants know that they’re there to work, not to chat. Instead they call this space the Nexus (el Nexo). Although proud of their 15M/indignados heritage, they distinguish themselves from 15M by insisting that they are not a ‘horizontal’ or ‘assemblary’ network. They are not a conventional political party either, for like free software groups, a meritocracy in which hard work and peer recognition is what will get you up the ranks, not top-down appointments or party discipline.

Partido X members say their initiative is not for everybody, only for the like-minded (ser afines al proyecto). We could say it is an ‘affinity space’ (Gee 2005) with various routes of participation and forms of expertise (technical, political, medial…) available to those keen and able to be part of it. There is also a filtering process at work both online and offline – the network’s boundaries are carefully monitored, with notable success to date. From what we might call a field virality perspective (see above), Partido X participants want to avoid the uncontrolled viral spread of the movement. Some of them learned their viral lesson during their involvement with Democracia Real Ya (DRY), the platform that coordinated the 15 May marches but was overwhelmed by 15M’s explosive growth following the spontaneous square occupations from 16 May onwards. One the party’s biggest challenges is how to break into the mainstream media, especially now that they are preparing for the coming European elections in May 2014. Its indignados hostility to personality politics (personalismos) is arguably at odd with the logics of institutional politics in the TV age (let’s not forget that the ‘old’ medium of TV is still going strong around the world, not least in Spain). This challenge was brought into sharp relief last week when a rival indignados party, Podemos (We Can), was launched by the political scientist and charismatic TV personality Pablo Iglesias.

15MPaRato: An earlier, and more tightly focused, field of strategic action (FSA) than Partido X, albeit with a big overlap in its leading personnel and spirit. In May 2012, this political prototype raised 15,000 euros within 24 hours though a crowdfunding appeal aimed at initiating legal proceedings against Rodrigo Rato, the former chief executive of Bankia. The disgraced bank had requested from the Spanish government a €19 billion bailout (15MPaRato 2013, Oliden et al 2013). As a result of the successful crowdfunding, in December 2012 Rato appeared in court to face a string of charges, including fraud and embezzlement (BBC 2012). The internet scholar Ismael Peña Lopez (2012a) highlights the innovative manner in which this new platform raised public awareness about the issue, set the public agenda, filled a void left by political parties and MPs, and used crowdfunding to pay for the court fees and crowdsourcing to gather evidence against Rato. Why did it succeed? Peña Lopez (2012b) singles out five main factors (which I would suggest capture some of 15M’s free culture strengths more generally), namely:

  1. 15M’s ‘powerful, versatile brand’ functioning as an ‘umbrella’.
  2. A ‘concrete, current, short-term objective’
  3. A highly flexible, agile networked organisation, in which numerous actors define themselves around their actions, not their identities or offices.
  4. The project was broken down into micro-tasks, an approach inspired by the ‘hacker ethic’ of free software (Benkler 2006, Raymond 1999)
  5. Intensive use of cheap, user-friendly, decentralised technological infrastructures.

From a field theoretical viewpoint, it would be interesting to investigate the inter-field dynamics existing between this initiative and Partido X, given their close ties and overlaps. What part do various forms of techno-political expertise play in these dynamics? With what effects for both organisations and for Spain’s broader political system?

Mortgage Victims’ Platform (PAH). Like Podemos, this platform has a highly visible, charismatic leader in Ada Colau, an experienced Barcelona activist that comes from previous struggles against corporate globalisation and the right to housing. Although PAH predates the 15M movement, the two have developed a symbiotic relationship over the years – ‘a perfect marriage’ – as one of its members put it. PAH has both an active social media and mainstream media presence, and many Spaniards recall Colau’s spirited defence of mortgage victims during a guest intervention in the Spanish Parliament. Widely regarded as a ‘born politician’ and astute media personality, she has so far managed to resist the advances of party political suitors to concentrate on the single issue of a fair treatment for countless Spanish families unable to keep up with their mortgage payments following the collapse of the property market in 2008. Through a savvy combination of direct actions (escraches) and the cultivation of public relations with opposition politicians and the media, PAH has managed to break with Spain’s ‘deep-rooted tendency toward a lack of interaction between protest movements and institutional actors’ (Romanos 2013: 1).


In the current global information crisis, growing numbers of individual and collective actors have got entangled with (trans)national struggles for real democracy and social justice. Countless fields of strategic action (organisations, parties, markets, states, lobbies) are now part of this web of competition and cooperation over a wide range of issues in which the political and the technological are inextricably tied, from the struggle for and against open access and freedom of speech to wealth redistribution and fair elections. Indeed this gigantic web itself can be regarded as a field of strategic action (FAS) with its own incumbents and challengers, internal government  units, stations and arenas, communicative ecology, and so on.

In this talk I took Spain as the case study. I argued that techno-political expertise is increasingly being mobilised – both publicly and privately – to turn Spanish citizens’ indignation into new forms of institutional politics rooted in contentious politics. Take, for example, the high prominence given by Partido X to Herve Falciani, the HSBC Private Bank systems engineer famous for releasing information about 130,000 alleged tax evaders. Falciani has been collaborating with Partido X’s anti-corruption committee since November 2013 and will be present at a number of public events as the party prepares its candidature to the May 2014 European elections. Far from being dismissive of these efforts for their alleged digital utopianism or techno-libertarianism, I have suggested that we need to take them very seriously indeed, for they are already having an impact on the reconfiguration of citizenship in Spain (and elsewhere).

These initiatives face, nonetheless, considerable challenges, including how to acquire a strong mainstream media presence for electoral projects that play down personality politics (media organisations that are, in any case, closely tied to Spain’s ruling classes), or how to manage the growth of citizens’ networks in an age of ‘viral reality’ (Postill 2014) in which not only digital contents but also groups and organisations can ‘go viral’ at a moment’s notice.


Unfortunately I haven’t got the time here to do justice to Veronica Barassi’s discussants’ comments or to the subsequent, and lively, Q&A with the Goldsmiths audience. But at least I can enumerate some of the issues raised by my talk:

  1. potential methodological pitfalls of notion of techno-political expertise
  2. danger of methodological individualism when focusing on experts
  3. Eurocentrism of these notions? what can we expect to find in non-Western contexts?
  4. how new is this ‘new’ protest movement you describe?
  5. the logic of connective action
  6. to what extent have these techno-political activists internalised technocratic, neoliberal notions without being aware of it?
  7. how do you distinguish ethnographically one field from another, in all their multiplicity?
  8. the transnational dimension of these fields of strategic action
  9. nerd politics, India’s anti-corruption movement and Indian diaspora in Silicon Valley
  10. how to handle the different levels of analysis, esp. with huge media events like the square occupations in Spain

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