Back in 2001, after borrowing more than any other developing nation, Argentina’s credit ratings plunged, pushing it to the brink of default. An enraged population converged on the central Plaza de Mayo, in front of the presidential palace, banging spoons on pots and shouting ‘Que se vayan todos!’ (they should all go). On 21 December, President De la Rúa was eventually forced to escape by helicopter.
Ten years after the events in Argentina, the scenario of popular revolt has shifted from South America to southern Europe, whose countries have seen their own credit ratings fall in the wake of the global financial crisis. In the past two months Spain and Greece have seen the birth of a popular movement calling itself ‘Los indignados’ (the outraged), after the title of a pamphlet authored by the nonagenarian former French resistance fighter Stéphane Hessel, calling on young people to act against the follies of the financial markets.
Inspired by the Arab Spring, they have set up protest camps in symbolic squares like Puerta del Sol in Madrid, Plaça de Catalunya in Barcelona and Syntagma Square in Athens. And their adherence to nonviolent principles has earned them broad support among a public grown resentful of the economic system and distrustful of democratic institutions that appear to have been emptied out of all power.
Momentous protest wave
Few journalists in Spain had taken notice of the protests called for 15 May 2011 by Democracia Real Ya! (Real Democracy Now!), a citizen grass-roots organisation started a few months before and supported by around 200 civil society organisations. On the day a total of 100,000 people marched in different cities across Spain to ask for changes in electoral law and economic policy.
In Madrid the police responded with truncheons to a sit-in set up in the Gran Via avenue. In protest around 100 people decided to camp overnight in central Puerta del Sol. That was to be the beginning of a momentous wave of protest.
The following day hundreds more gathered in Puerta del Sol, and by the day after that they had become thousands. In imitation of Tahrir Square in Cairo, activists set up a haphazard cluster of blue tents to protect participants from the scorching sun, and to house the different committees managing the camp.
A giant L’Oréal billboard towering over the square was defaced by a huge banner affirming ‘No nos representan’ (they do not represent us), and the camp soon filled with thousands of hand-written placards, banners and post-its, while political and union flags were banned.
Tweets using hashtags such as #spanishrevolution, #acampadasol, #yeswecamp and #europeanrevolution helped the movement make ripples across the world; solidarity camps were erected on five continents. In the meantime the indignados proliferated at the local level, with camps reaching the most remote towns of Castilla and Andalusia, and tens of neighbourhood assemblies being born in the metropolitan areas. On 19 June, more than half a million people marched in Madrid to present their demands to parliament. Further demonstrations took place in Barcelona, Valencia, Las Palmas, Bilbao, Sevilla, Málaga and numerous other cities.
In the meantime, the movement had moved across the Mediterranean to Greece. After so many general strikes and street battles with the police had proven incapable of halting the austerity drive of Papandreou’s government, the Greeks found inspiration in the nonviolent and popular character of the Spanish movement.
On 25 May, following a call made through a Facebook page, thousands of people converged on Syntagma, where they set up their own camp to oppose a new bailout package offered by the International Monetary Fund and the European Union.
The pulsing hearts of the indignados movement in both Spain and Greece have been its popular assemblies. Beginning in the evening and often continuing well into the night, they have seen people of all ages and walks of life sharing their anger at the economic impasse, the loss of jobs and the state of countries that feel they have been betrayed by the political class.
Spain and Greece are among the countries that have been experiencing the harshest consequences of the financial crisis in Europe. In Spain, since the phenomenal crash of the building sector in 2008, the government of José Luis Zapatero has put forward a series of draconian austerity measures. These include a rise in the pension age to 67, a deep reduction in public employees’ salaries and a 9 per cent cut in public spending approved in the last budget alongside pro-employer labour reform. Meanwhile, unemployment is stuck at 20 per cent and according to recent figures 43.5 per cent of young people don’t have a job.
The situation is even harsher in Greece. Despite the protests, the country is now facing the consequences of a second bailout package, which will probably total €110 billion, the same as the one given in 2010. To appease the IMF and the European Central Bank, the Papandreou government has recently approved a new, fifth round of austerity measures. The plan includes 150,000 public sector job cuts and a €50 billion programme of privatisation of public assets. Among them is the Piraeus port, the biggest in the Mediterranean.
Many analysts believe that the new bailout plan will not stop Greece from defaulting and will only make its recovery slower and enable the banks to get their money back at the expense of the taxpayer. In the meantime, recorded unemployment in the country remains above 15 per cent, and after the new public sector job cuts it is forecast to reach the same level as Spain.
Talking with people in the protest camps, one can see how these numbers translate into a daily experience of personal hardship. ‘I am glad to be here also because there is something to eat and somewhere to sleep,’ admits Dimitris, a 26 years-old social worker I met in Syntagma Square, who is struggling to live on the €400 monthly benefit given by the Greek state. The situation is not rosy for those who are in employment either. ‘My friends tell me you should be happy: at least you have a job!’ says Laura Blanco, a 28-year-old social researcher camping at Puerta del Sol. ‘But how can I be, when most of the money goes away with the rent and bills?’
Part of a ‘lost generation’ who have seen labour rights and welfare entitlements progressively vanish as a consequence of neoliberal policies, the indignados are critical not only of the right but also of the organised left. The governments they oppose in Spain and Greece are in fact headed by Socialist politicians. But the trade unions and parties of the radical left, such as Izquierda Unida in Spain and Syriza and the Communist Party (KKE) in Greece enjoy little credibility either.
‘There is quite a lot of distrust towards parties,’ says Sissy Vovou, a member of the Greek Syriza who has been active at the Syntagma camp. ‘One of the resolutions of the assembly here was even to dissolve all parties. This might not represent the spirit of the square as a whole. But definitely left parties are not going to earn many votes as a consequence of this protest.’
Beyond the protest camps
Highly critical of what they see as corrupt political institutions and suspicious towards unaccountable parties and trade unions, the indignados have found some reasons for hope in assembly democracy. At the same time, they are not as naive as some media have portrayed them, and are well cognisant of the fact that the only way to secure social change is via deep reform of the democratic institutions they have lost trust in. Thus, topping the official demands of the assemblies in Spain and Greece are proposals for constitutional and electoral reform whose rationale is seemingly to regain some form of national sovereignty after years of market-led globalisation.
This ‘back to the nation’ strategy is causing a lot of concern among some on the left and those who had been at the forefront of anti-globalisation protests. Such a turn is quite understandable, given that it is at the national level that the management of the economic crisis and the politics of austerity are unfolding. But it raises questions as to whether the real solution to the problems faced by southern European countries is simply to exit from a European Union identified with the euro, as some of the indignados (especially in Greece) seem to believe, or rather to refound Europe on democratic and social grounds as it is argued by others in the movement (particularly among the Spaniards).
Now that most of the protest camps have ended (though the Syntagma camp was continuing as Red Pepper went to press, despite the approval of the new austerity package), the indignados are looking for new ways to harness public attention. In Spain, walking and cycling caravans are already leaving from different cities to head towards the capital, gathering support and proposals on the way. The movement was due to assemble in Puerta del Sol in late July to present its demands to the people as much as to parliament. In both Spain and Greece, the indignados movement will face an uphill struggle to turn its impressive popular support into concrete political results, but it has already succeeded in creating political institutions of a new kind. n
Photographs by Lara Pelaez, Madrid
Labour's 1983 election campaign has long been used to say it is impossible for a leader like Jeremy Corbyn to win any election from the left. Alex Nunns digs out the truth
Drax is the UK's biggest source of CO2 emissions – and we're paying for it, writes Almuth Ernsting
For the past 3 years, Barby Asante and members of London-based artists' collective, sorryyoufeeluncomfortable, have been responding directly to the vision of James Baldwin. Ahead of the nationwide release of a new film about the American activist and author, they reflect on the enduring relevance of Baldwin in Britain today.
Housing campaigners' gains in Bristol are spurring on a national movement to build a renters' union, writes Stuart Melvin
A new Espionage Act threatens whistleblowers and journalists, writes Sarah Kavanagh
We need an anti-austerity alliance, not a vaguely progressive alliance, argues Michael Calderbank
Rahila Gupta talks to Kimmie Taylor about life on the frontline in Rojava
It may seem as though these apps are working for us, but we are also working for the apps, writes Kurt Iveson
It's over 100 years ago that domestic workers began to organise to demand the same rights as other workers. Yet with LSE cleaners on strike this week, historian Laura Schwartz asks: how much has really changed?
Omar Barghouti asks whether Donald Trump, in his recent break with America’s long-standing support for the two-state solution, has unwittingly revived the debate about the plausibility, indeed the necessity, of a single, democratic state in historic Palestine?
Our activism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit…
Reflecting on a year in the environmental and anti-racist movements, Plane Stupid activist, Ali Tamlit, calls for a renewed focus on the dangers of power and privilege and the means to overcome them.
West Yorkshire calls for devolution of politics
When communities feel that power is exercised by a remote elite, anger and alienation will grow. But genuine regional democracy offers a positive alternative, argue the Same Skies Collective
How to resist the exploitation of digital gig workers
For the first time in history, we have a mass migration of labour without an actual migration of workers. Mark Graham and Alex Wood explore the consequences
The Digital Liberties cross-party campaign
Access to the internet should be considered as vital as access to power and water writes Sophia Drakopoulou
#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part III: a discussion of power and privilege
In the final article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr gives a few pointers on how to be a good ally
Event: Take Back Control Croydon
Ken Loach, Dawn Foster & Soweto Kinch to speak in Croydon at the first event of a UK-wide series organised by The World Transformed and local activists
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 19 April
On April 19th, we’ll be holding the second of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.
Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change
Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself
#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part II: a discussion of power and privilege
In the second article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the silencing of black women and the flaws in safe spaces
Joint statement on George Osborne’s appointment to the Evening Standard
'We have come together to denounce this brazen conflict of interest and to champion the growing need for independent, truthful and representative media'
Paul O’Connell and Michael Calderbank consider the conditions that led to the Brexit vote, and how the left in Britain should respond
On the right side of history: an interview with Mijente
Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Reyna Wences, co-founder of Mijente, a radical Latinx and Chincanx organising network
Disrupting the City of London Corporation elections
The City of London Corporation is one of the most secretive and least understood institutions in the world, writes Luke Walter
#AndABlackWomanAtThat: a discussion of power and privilege
In the first article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the oppression of her early life and how we must fight it, even in our own movement
Corbyn understands the needs of our communities
Ian Hodson reflects on the Copeland by-election and explains why Corbyn has the full support of The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 15 March
On 15 March, we’ll be holding the first of Red Pepper’s Race Section open editorial meetings.
Social Workers Without Borders
Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees
Growing up married
Laura Nicholson interviews Dr Eylem Atakav about her new film, Growing Up Married, which tells the stories of Turkey’s child brides
The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari
Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next
Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace
Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill
Report from the second Citizen’s Assembly of Podemos
Sol Trumbo Vila says the mandate from the Podemos Assembly is to go forwards in unity and with humility
Protect our public lands
Last summer Indigenous people travelled thousands of miles around the USA to tell their stories and build a movement. Julie Maldonado reports
From the frontlines
Red Pepper’s new race editor, Ashish Ghadiali, introduces a new space for black and minority progressive voices
How can we make the left sexy?
Jenny Nelson reports on a session at The World Transformed
In pictures: designing for change
Sana Iqbal, the designer behind the identity of The World Transformed festival and the accompanying cover of Red Pepper, talks about the importance of good design
Angry about the #MuslimBan? Here are 5 things to do
As well as protesting against Trump we have a lot of work to get on with here in the UK. Here's a list started by Platform
Who owns our land?
Guy Shrubsole gives some tips for finding out