Spain’s 15-M: What happened and what can we learn?

It began on the 15th of May in the form of demonstrations across Spain with an estimated attendance of 150,000. This initial demonstration was organized by a new group called Real Democracy Now (RDN), a loosely organized collective which focused on expressing the feeling of outrage among the Spanish population without recourse to traditional left ideology.

Puerta del Sol: mass demonstrations are the engine of the movement

The initial demonstration had two main focuses: the State’s handling of the crisis (bailout for the banks, attacks on public services etc) and the representative democratic system, especially the dominance of the two main parties. In this regard there are clear parallels with Claiming Our Future here in Ireland, the group that organized a very well-attended encounter in the RDS last year, bringing together people to participate in the creation of alternative political visions. Like Claiming Our Future, RDN was oriented to the left, in the sense of being against the prioritization of the financial system and the speculators, but sidelined traditional left ideologies in favour of a focus on democratic participation. As a result, and again much like Claiming Our Future, the initial demonstrations were ambiguous: there was a clearly progressive element but at the same time there was some fairly lame demands circulating, like reform of the electoral system and so on. This is the danger of participative democracy as an idea, it can be used to shore up a system of representative democracy which is clearly in crisis (witness the trend for electoral reform from above, whether it be the abolition of the Seanad or the AV referendum in the UK).

From the beginning RDN was different to Claiming Our Future in the sense that it took to the streets and much more directly attacked the system. However, it was the occupation of Madrid’s central square (Puerta del Sol) which really moved things in a new direction. The resolve of demonstrators to stay on, not to return to business as usual, was in itself inspiring. But more inspiring still was the reoccupation of the square following a police eviction in the early hours of the 16th. Once reoccupied a call went out from Puerta del Sol to occupy central squares across Spain- and this call was met in over 65 cities and towns across Spain, including major cities like Barcelona.

The square occupations were quickly illegalized. Local elections were to be held the following Sunday and the government used this as a convenient excuse. But it was also the elections which gave the movement a chance to orient itself more politically. This happened initially by calling for mass abstention from the vote, a clear sign of a general rejection of representative democracy. More importantly still, each square became a laboratory in participative democracy. At this point the RDN organization lost its centrality to the movement and the squares took over as the main agents. Each square began to develop its own politics and demands, participative assemblies were being held round the clock.

I have had a chance to see the manifestos developed in Madrid, Barcelona and Granada. They focus on similar and wide ranging issues. The main features include the erosion of the power and privileges of the political class; regulation of banks and a ban on bank bailouts; reversal of cuts to social services and attacks on workers’ pay and conditions; electoral reform in a participative direction. It’s quite amazing that mass assemblies involving a very wide variety of people were able to develop, in under a week, a coherent and radical set of demands.

At this point the differences between something like Claiming Our Future and the 15-M movement are clear. 15-M became a permanent and directly confrontational movement launching specific demands against the State. It is lead from the bottom up, rather than by leaders of NGOs, Trade Unions and civil society organizations (as is the case with Claiming Our Future).

What most reports confirm as the central dimensions of 15-M, though, is the effect it has had on participants. In this case, many consider 15-M to be a political event of historic proportions: there is a before and an after and things will never be the same again. What is fascinating, for me at least, is that people seem to have broken through the glass wall that structures what’s possible and what’s impossible- opening up a whole new field of political potential which, while it always existed, remained repressed or latent in the previous situation. This came out of no where. As one placard put it, ‘no one expects the Spanish revolution’.

But what happens next? There are three different processes that indicate what the future might hold. The ‘siege of placa catalunya’ (Barcelona) on the morning of the 27th was one such process. The cops attacked the square at 6am but the demonstrators would not be moved easily. After a confrontation that lasted hours the police were on the verge of emptying the square when the huge support protest, which formed outside the police cordon, broke through and re-occupied the square. At this point the cops gave up. This is an indication of the resolve of the movement and its willingness to operate outside of and in confrontation with the law.

The second process is that of Madrid. From Puerta del Sol a call went out a number of days ago to hold public assemblies in local neighborhoods on the 28th (yesterday). From what I can find out so far these were well attended, with thousands turning out across Madrid. Today (29th) the local assemblies will join Puerta del Sol and share what was discussed and any demands or principles that have been put forward. In other words there is an attempt to multiply the assemblies which are now the organizational engine of the movement.

Finally, and most importantly perhaps for us here in Ireland, there is the international dimensions. Solidarity protests have occurred throughout Europe. However, they have been more than just expressions of solidarity, because people across Europe identify with the energy and demands of the movement and see in it a directly European movement. Last Thursday’s demonstration in Athens brought together huge numbers (15,000 if I’m not wrong) and seemed particularly promising.

Here in Ireland a protest took place on the 28th at the Spire in O’Connell Street. Mainly organized by Spanish people, the protest involved expressions of solidarity with our friends in Spain but also an attempt to ‘transnationalise’ 15-M. We held an open assembly in which anyone could take the mic and freely talk. This was the best element for me- spending Saturday on O’Connell Street talking and listening to people express themselves politically.

However, the difficulties on the international side of things were evident at yesterdays Dublin protest as well. First of all, many representatives of political parties (such as Paul Murphy (SP) and Joan Collins (SWP)) took the mic, which seemed to particularly piss-off many of the Spanish participants. At the same time it was difficult to both express solidarity and to create something specific to the Irish situation- maybe there was a sense of being neither one thing nor the other, neither a solidarity demo nor an Irish protest.

Nevertheless, it seems worth going ahead, both because we’re inspired by the movement in Spain and because holding open assemblies in the streets is the best idea I’ve heard of since the beginning of this crisis.

More broadly, could something like the 15-M movement happen in Ireland? The key difficulty, it seems to me, is that most of the initiatives that have been launched so far have been either tame civil society affairs (that avoid confrontation) or connected to the far left parties. This is the case with the SWP’s latest idea, the Enough campaign. This focuses on the IMF/ECB ‘bailout’. But we know that once people see the red flag and the ubiquitous newspaper they will turn away. If something is going to happen it will not be ideologically driven or led by a party. I have the feeling that Irish activists are too attached to their ideologies and their party lines to be able to organize something that has a broader relevance. So it will fall to groups outside the left.

To conclude it’s worth restating the key elements that are specific to 15-M:

  • it operates outside of, and largely against, the party as an organizational form, as well as other traditional left forms like Trade Unions;
  • it identifies the politics of elected representation as part of the problem and not part of the solution. Specifically, the movement attacks the political class as a specific element of the reproduction of capitalist domination;
  • strong emphasis on participation and very horizontal in structure – everybody has to think for themselves rather than trying to spread inherited ideologies;
  • the network- the structure of the movement is that of a horizontal network linking together united but different ‘nodes’. Each square develops its own politics from the bottom up and relays this via the social and social media networks. There is unity without homogeneity;
  • the movement does not try to brand itself with a specific ideology or identity, it opens itself outwards towards society and attempts to be universal. This is really important as millions of people identify with the movement and this makes it much more difficult for the police to repress it.

Each of these points provide valuable insights into the organization of resistance today but will of course have to be put to work within specific and local processes.

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One comment

  1. […] cycle of mobilisations in recent years, following the explosion of what is referred to as the 15-M movement. This movement, which in many respects resembles both the ‘Arab Spring’ and Occupy, represented […]

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