Traficantes de Suenos

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= Traficantes de Sueños


Luis Moreno-Caballud :

“This project comprises, among other things, a bookstore, a publisher, a distributor, a design workshop, an activist research group, a permanent program of self-education seminars, and a social space that houses all these and many other activities. In 1996, there probably weren’t many people who thought this transformation would happen by ‘giving away’ books. But somehow that’s just what happened.

So, essentially, since 1999, when that folding table became a publishing house, Traficantes de Sueños (TdS) has been making digital versions of all their published books freely available to anyone. Besides allowing copying through the use of Creative Commons licenses, TdS has always produced a pdf file of every one of their carefully edited texts, and has put them on its website for downloading. Contrary to what some skeptics claimed, a priori, would happen, people have not taken massive advantage of these ‘free products’ and ‘ruined’ TdS’s project or made it unsustainable. Quite the contrary. The determined support for the decommodification of the book as an object, along with other important factors I will discuss, has made TdS’s project especially attractive for many people, who, in turn, have found ways to support it. Through their work, TdS has become one of the clearest examples in all of Spain that the basic principles of the free culture can be applied successfully not only to digital resources like software, but also to other types of cultural processes, such as the publication of books.

The researcher and activist Jaron Rowan has published an interesting and exhaustive study about this multifaceted cultural project (2001). He indicates a number of significant factors that contribute to TdS’s exponential growth. Beyond just offering free access to their books, they also possess the more general capacity to create infrastructures that others can use to carry out other processes of cultural production. In other words, they have the ability to create and share not only ‘results,’ which published books are, in some sense, but also the very conditions of possibility for establishing open, self-managed cultural processes.

Let’s think about what happens in any given week at Traficantes de Sueños, or rather, at Embajadores 35, which is their address in Lavapiés, the Madrid barrio that is home to this project.[1] As I write these words, a vinyl scratching and mixing workshop is being held by DJ Caution. It’s one of the activities on the program of Guacamayofest 2014, which defines itself as a ‘playful platform for giving exposure to the more avant-garde artistic expressions of the heterogeneous Latin American sound space.’ But in the space of a very few days before and after, this same physical space has hosted and will yet host a talk on cyberactivism in Africa, feminist theorist/activist Silvia Federici’s presentation of the translation of the book Revolución en punto cero (published by Traficantes), a tribute concert to the Puerto Rican poet Julia de Burgos, a conference on transgenic foods, and the start of the self-education course ‘The Legend of Time: Subcultures, Music, Social Change and Ruptures in Contemporary “Spain.”’ This latter will begin with a session on ‘flamenco and power,’ among other events that are free and open to the public.

In addition to offering this wealth of programming, the space is open to the general public during the day. People can browse in the bookstore or La Ceiba, the fair trade cooperative store that shares space with TdS and with the open-source software cooperative Embajadores 35 is also regularly open to the barrio through activities for children, language classes, and workshops, and is shared with any local groups that may want to use it for their activities. This activity generates what Rowan calls a ‘noticeably multiethnic and multipurpose dynamic space, quite the opposite of certain more traditional cultural spaces that have a more homogeneous demography’ (2011).

From this daily activity, from this exuberant confluence of rhythms, bodies, desires, and projects springs the extraordinary production of all kinds of knowledge generated by TdS, hand in hand with the communities and networks that move through the project. Among these kinds of knowledge are those gathered in and proposed by the press’s books, which often have direct connections to specific needs and interests rooted in that everyday life. Perhaps the clearest case of this would be the books explicitly presented as ‘users’ manuals.’ A prominent example is the Manual de desobediencia a la Ley Sinde, published in collaboration with Hacktivistas and the newspaperDiagonal in 2011, amid an atmosphere of effervescent opposition to this law. Another with similar objectives is Copyleft: manual de uso, which came out in 2006.

But up to a point, many of TdS’s books demonstrate that same vocation to serve some specific collective need as straightforwardly as possible. La crisis que viene, for example, is a remarkable example written by the activist research group Observatorio Metropolitano, which is also a part of Traficantes, and published just before the irruption of 15M. It became an essential reference for the wave of politicization produced by that movement. Two years after its appearance, this analysis of the neoliberal dogmas leading to the economic crisis had reached 50,000 downloads and 2,000 print copies sold. Another important recent example among many others is the compilation of experiences and ways of knowing resulting from the encounter between the Forum for Independent Life and the Precarious Agency in Cojos y precarias: haciendo vidas que importan (2011). And finally, it’s worth mentioning the collective volume La universidad en conflicto (2010), compiled by Universidad Nómada and Edu-Factory to investigate and offer analytical materials on the corporatization of institutions of higher education under globalized capitalism.

As the neoliberal crisis has deepened, TdS has become an ever more necessary and requested knowledge factory because of its capacity to harbor a kind of reflection connected directly to attempts to escape the dominion of competition and corporatization. It has its own model of sustainability, as a project that supports the ‘social economy.’ As explained on its website, TdS is a ‘nonprofit association where the workers give the orders,’ and which ‘survives thanks to the community that chooses to support it because they believe it’s a valuable resource for everyone.’ With the aim of offering channels for that community support, in addition to offering books for sale in its physical and virtual stores, TdS has set up subscription services to its bookstore and its press, and the ongoing possibility of making donations online.

A fact that may seem anecdotal, but I consider relevant to this support, is that the premises of Embajadores 35 are set back a little from the street, in a passageway located within a block of apartments. If you didn’t know it existed, it would be hard to just stumble upon it. Deliberately burying themselves in the small corridor leading to their door could serve as a metaphor for the active, voluntary gesture that TdS requires from its community of users to survive, beyond mere consumerism. Even though book sales are used partly to support the organization, it would be difficult for someone to buy a book in TdS without knowing that by doing so, he or she was contributing to a space that tries to create a culture whose value is not decided commercially.

Of course, the created value of TdS can also be co-opted indirectly by being used by consumerist, commodifying logics, like any other socially produced value. But that does not invalidate the existence of a whole series of specific protocols that make TdS a social economy and free culture project that tries to complicate that co-optation: open licenses, workers self-managing assemblies, interruption of profit logics, constantly offering their resources to serve the communities that participate in the project, and in general—again in their words (online)—the goal of ‘generating goods and services through fair productive structures, where the most important things are workforce and gender equality, and respect for the planet.’ It is no surprise, then, that during the neoliberal crisis Traficantes has experienced an increase in participation and remarkable support for its activities. In some sense it functions as a cultural catalyst, a repository of living knowledge, a meeting place, and an enhancer of the intellectual and affective abilities of anyone. In short, it is fulfilling many of the functions that other institutions closer to neoliberal logics—and more dependent on them for support, such as universities, museums, cultural centers, and foundations—find themselves less and less able to carry out because of their growing commercialization, which involves an inevitable dependence on private economic interests.

It also seems particularly relevant to highlight that along with that more urgent type of knowledge tied to specific political or even tactical processes, Traficantes generates very interesting processes of self-education and research. These give rise to more speculative, experimental activities that may lead to rereadings of long-term historical processes that often require more tranquil temporalities. For example, Silvia Federici’s text Calibán y la bruja: mujeres, cuerpo y acumulación originaria has generated enormous interest, attaining very high sales and downloads for a history book and political essay published by an alternative press. Federici, whose theory on the origin of capitalism and its effects on the reproduction of life is central for my own research, has given talks at TdS on several occasions, and she always fills the place to capacity. She typically attracts people interested in the convergence of feminism and the critique of capitalism. But interestingly, she also attracts those willing to participate in the type of long-term analysis that is usually more difficult to carry off in activist spaces, which are often more focused on the present.

That function of learning, research, and analysis maintained over long periods—which usually occur in universities—perhaps finds its most propitious place within the constellation of TdS in the self-education courses called ‘Nociones Comunes’ (‘Common Notions’). In these courses, collective inquiries are opened about problems that the ‘alternative’ spaces critical of neoliberalism tend to deal with from the position of street protests, activism, or public condemnation. Common Notions courses provide infrastructures so that in addition to those answers, collective self-education also takes place, allowing a deeper exploration of subjects typically closely tied to the present. Examples include the neoliberal crisis, struggles for online freedom, or feminisms, but also others like migrations, countercultures, processes of urban gentrification, and the burning question of the moment, the possible democratization from within of representative political institutions.

So TdS is a kind of incubator of knowledge and resources—of different scales, dimensions, and speeds—that can address the needs and abilities that arise as much in the everyday life of a multiethnic urban barrio in the center of Madrid as they do in the ebb and flow of global opposition movements to neoliberalism. These range from eminently practical, tactical, or instrumental kinds of knowledge tied to immediate survival, to creative, aesthetic, theoretical, or investigative long-range processes, and go through a multitude of combinations between both extremes.” (