Listening to Los Indignados

One of the great surprises of the early summer, not the least, was the size and the range of the demonstrations that saw people occupy public squares all over Spain in protest against Spanish responses to the Crisis, the hollowing out of Spanish democracy and extremely high levels of unemployment, especially among the young. Like similar protests in the UK or France, the protests were remarkable for their refusal of what they saw as conventional politics with their party and union organisations, their hierarchies and procedures and their selected spokespeople. It was the same features which made the protests hard to follow from outside. One of the outcomes of the British anti-fees mobilisations was an e-book that helped to give a real sense of some of the aspirations and principles that drove people involved (see here). A similar e-book (available here) emerged from the Spanish protests. Because the protests were driven by an aspiration for direct democracy and a refusal of representation, there is no sense in which the e-book can somehow be said to sum up the movement: however, it does give a sense of at least some of what drove the mobilisations and, importantly, it provides a valuable insight into some tensions and contradictions …  

The e-book begins with the manifesto published on May 15th by Democracia Real, Ya (Real Democracy Now) which is a rather general if not vague document: it declares  that some of those who support the movement are of the left (progresistas), others conservatives, yet others apolitical, but all united by a rejection of elite political, banking and business corruption. The tension is immediately apparent between this desire to federate all possible oppositions and more positive declarations of what the movement stands for: a commitment to equality, solidarity, ‘progress’, ecological sustainability, and the well-being and happiness of people; a commitment to basic rights to work, to housing, to health, to education; a reassertion that political authority emanates from the people. While these declarations might be seen as fairly anodyne and unlikely to alienate many potential supporters, they do feel distinctly of the left and could potentially be articulated within a more radical systemic critique, especially if the conditions of possibility of their realisation and the real obstacles to them were thought through. This is what comes through in some of the texts in the e-book itself. For example, Pedro Honrubia, from the website http://www.kaosenlared.net/ , denounces the incoherence of protesting against banks, the international financial system and politicians who do the work of capital on the one hand and saying, on the other, that one is not anti-systemic. Drawing on a classic Marxist distinction, he speaks of the need for the objective conditions (of crisis) and the subjective conditions of awareness to coincide and notes that the latter are not yet present. At the moment, he suggests, much of the protest is driven by people’s sense that they are excluded from the benefits of the system. Rather than rising to a genuinely anti-systemic critique, they are demonstrating for their own inclusion in something essentially unchanged. Less dispassionate, veering sharply towards the terrain of conspiracy theories, Benjamin Balboa compares the movement to the Ukranian Orange Revolution and sees it as a Trojan (in the computer sense) or a worm, burrowing away inside the anti-capitalist movement, cutting it off from past resistances and traditions leading to something completely dehistoricised and anodyne, a movement to prevent there being a real movement.

Picking up on the question of the relationship with tradition and of the precise nature of those involved in the mobilisation, Jorge Moruno, another Kaosenlared contributor, locates the movement as part of a sequence that began with anti-globalisation protests, continued with the anti-Iraq war protests in 2003, the fight for a decent place to live in 2006-7 and the struggle against the application of the Bologna plan in Higher Education, and most recently came to a head with the Madrid and other Tahrir-like occupations. What pulls this sequence of actions together suggests Moruno is their mode of organisation (with its radical rejection of more classical models), their sociological composition and the nature of their demands. Sociologically, Moruno suggests, the classic white male worker, although still present , has lost his centrality due to the new importance of the young, women, immigrants, the unemployed and the recently redundant, groups which have felt the full force of the crisis and the increasing and deliberately engineered precariousness of labour. This sociological decentring of the male working class is reflected in the spatial shift to the city rather than the factory as the principal locus of action. With respect to the kind of demands being made, and in direct disagreement with some other commentators, Moruno stresses their anti-systemic tone, as demonstrated in slogans like ‘We are not merchandise in the hands of bankers and politicians’ or ‘if merchandise rules, there is no democracy’ or ‘this system, we’re going to change it’. Picking up on this contrast between old and new forms of mobilisation, a collective text from demonstrators in Yesca disagrees radically with the tendency to run down groups on the left who have always fought the system, wrongly drawing them into a blanket condemnation of the old parties and the trade unions. People have a series of tools at their disposal to fight with, it is suggested: to wilfully discard some of them is irresponsible and risks leaving the movement armed simply with vacuous slogans.

The way forward for the mobilisation, how it can make itself a movement and not simply a moment as one of the contributors to the e-volume put it, is clearly the key question. The point is succinctly point in an open letter in the book written by Jose Luis Sampedro, the veteran writer who contributed a preface to the Spanish translation of Stéphane Hessel’s French best-seller Indignez-vous, a work whose call to react helped sparked the protests in Spain. Sampedro points out that, to be meaningful, the movement must achieve something more than a bestseller (Hessel’s book) or localised oases in the desert (the occupations). A similar point is made at greater length by Marco Terranova Tenorio who says the movement will only be successful if it can create new political structures. It must avoid the twin traps of either remaining a protest movement or becoming a political party but must instead seek to build parallel democratic institutions in the form of a network of local assemblies functioning through direct democracy. A tremendously ambitious aim but also one consistent with some of the movement’s most clearly articulated principles and its established mode of functioning.

The future of the movement is clearly an open question. It is easy to dismiss it as something naïve, spontaneous and consensual and therefore doomed to disappear without trace after some euphoric moments. But it has undoubtedly shaken elites, reawakened a sense of political possibility and shown that those assumed to be quiescent were capable of reacting and challenging the status quo. It is telling how much the rather vague ideals of the initial manifesto of May 15th (Democracia real ya!) contrasted with the proposals agreed in the general assembly of May 20th in the Plaza del Sol in Madrid. The latter spoke, among other things, of fiscal and electoral reform, a Tobin tax on international financial transactions (the influence of the counter-globalisation movement is clear here), a reduction of the power of the IMF and the European Central Bank, the closure of nuclear power stations (the green voice making itself heard) and a renationalisation of privatised state enterprises. These are perhaps not the most radical of proposals, but they do bear witness to the rapidity of the movement’s progression and the sheer vitality of its discussions.

Martin O’Shaughnessy

This entry was posted in Protest and mobilisation, The crisis beyond the Hexagon, The politics of crisis, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

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