Nobody expects the Spanish revolution

Javier Navascués reports on the youth movement occupying Spain’s public squares

May 19, 2011
4 min read


Javier Navascués is an activist with United Left in Spain, and the architect of a radical form of participatory budgeting in Seville.

‘We, the unemployed, the underpaid, the subcontracted, the precarious, the young … demand a change towards a future with dignity. We are fed up of reforms, of being laid off, of the banks which have caused the crisis hardening our mortgages or taking away our houses, of laws limiting our freedom in the interest of the powerful. We blame the political and economic powers of our sad situation and we call for a turn.’

When a new and unknown platform called Real Democracy Now called for a demonstration last Sunday, 15 May, few expected that something like 130,000 people would turn out across Spain. Around 1,000 of those attempted to occupy Madrid’s central square, the Puerta del Sol, overnight in a conscious imitation of Tahrir Square. They were violently evicted by police, but the next day similar camps sprang up in most major cities. They are still mostly there and intend to remain until Sunday’s local elections.

Of course, though the movement has taken even the organisers by surprise, it has antecedents and a context. Its roots include those groups and movements connected to the World Social Forum process as well as the protests organised by young people before the financial crisis over the high cost of homes as a result of the property boom. More recently, a ‘Youth without a future’ demonstration attracted up to 3,000 people in April, marching under the slogan ‘No House, No Job, No Pension, No Fear’. This was not a particularly impressive turnout, though it matched the unimpressive turnout for recent trade union mobilisations.

The trade union response to the crisis was slow in coming and quickly lost steam. A general strike last September happened nine months after the first austerity measures were announced. Then the large unions signed an agreement with the government on pension cuts in January. Although they were denounced by smaller, more militant unions, those unions were unable to call a significant mobilisation against the agreement. Union rank and file members are showing clear signs of demoralisation.

Then came the election campaign. A court battle concerning the possibility of pro-ETA candidates running in the Basque Country resulted in them being allowed to run (good news because it signals a better chance of bringing terrorism to an end) but provided the right with an opportunity to stoke Spanish nationalistic chauvinism. On the other hand the austerity policies and the high rate of unemployment have alienated a lot of the popular classes who would normally support the PSOE. As a result the polls were forecasting a landslide defeat of the PSOE to the PP. United Left (IU) is showing significant advances in the polls, but nothing to match the major shift away from the PSOE.

Then the marches last Sunday erupted. They were called mostly by word of mouth and through social networks. Thousands marched against the banks and for real democracy. Botín, CEO of Banco Santander, and other prominent businessmen were identified as responsible for the crisis, while one of the most popular slogans was ‘PSOE and PP are the same shit’. Corruption is also targeted. People shouted ‘no hay pan para tanto chorizo’ (there is not enough bread for so many sausages). As well as being a Spanish sandwich sausage, ‘chorizo’ also means ‘crook’ in popular slang.

Some are now advocating a ‘blank’ vote in the elections, but in most cases ‘real democracy’ is understood as the need to reform the electoral regulations and, more significantly, the primacy of elected bodies over the ‘markets’ and the accountability of elected officials.

The right will still most probably win the elections although a surprise cannot be ruled out. If the defeat is large enough, PSOE prime minister Rodrigo Zapatero will probably be forced to call an early general election. It does not seem realistic to expect a left turn as his government is highly committed to the austerity policies that are being designed at the European level.

But the Spanish landscape the day after could be different. There could be new actors on the stage. Whether or not this particular movement survives, contestation in Spain is gathering momentum and it will recover. And although this new impetus will not automatically shift either the unions or the PSOE grassroots to the left, this week’s mobilisations will certainly have an effect on the labour movement. The anti-globalisation movement in Spain, which was thought dead, has reappeared under a new incarnation.


Javier Navascués is an activist with United Left in Spain, and the architect of a radical form of participatory budgeting in Seville.


✹ Try our new pay-as-you-feel subscription — you choose how much to pay.

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

Don’t delay – ditch coal
Take action this month with the Coal Action Network. By Anne Harris

Utopia: Work less play more
A shorter working week would benefit everyone, writes Madeleine Ellis-Petersen

Mum’s Colombian mine protest comes to London
Anne Harris reports on one woman’s fight against a multinational coal giant

Bike courier Maggie Dewhurst takes on the gig economy… and wins
We spoke to Mags about why she’s ‘biting the hand that feeds her’

Utopia: Daring to dream
Imagining a better world is the first step towards creating one. Ruth Potts introduces our special utopian issue

A better Brexit
The left should not tail-end the establishment Bremoaners, argues Michael Calderbank

News from movements around the world
Compiled by James O’Nions

Podemos: In the Name of the People
'The emergence as a potential party of government is testament both to the richness of Spanish radical culture and the inventiveness of activists such as Errejón' - Jacob Mukherjee reviews Errejón and Mouffe's latest release

Survival Shake! – creative ways to resist the system
Social justice campaigner Sakina Sheikh describes a project to embolden young people through the arts

‘We don’t want to be an afterthought’: inside Momentum Kids
If Momentum is going to meet the challenge of being fully inclusive, a space must be provided for parents, mothers, carers, grandparents and children, write Jessie Hoskin and Natasha Josette

The Kurdish revolution – a report from Rojava
Peter Loo is supporting revolutionary social change in Northern Syria.

How to make your own media
Lorna Stephenson and Adam Cantwell-Corn on running a local media co-op

Book Review: The EU: an Obituary
Tim Holmes takes a look at John Gillingham's polemical history of the EU

Book Review: The End of Jewish Modernity
Author Daniel Lazar reviews Enzo Traverso's The End of Jewish Modernity

Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants
Ida-Sofie Picard introduces Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants – as told to Jenny Nelson

Book review: Angry White People: Coming Face to Face With the British Far-Right
Hilary Aked gets close up with the British far right in Hsiao-Hung Pai's latest release

University should not be a debt factory
Sheldon Ridley spoke to students taking part in their first national demonstration.

Book Review: The Day the Music Died – a Memoir
Sheila Rowbotham reviews the memoirs of BBC director and producer, Tony Garnett.

Power Games: A Political History
Malcolm Maclean reviews Jules Boykoff's Power Games: A Political History


206