Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

Resistance takes root in Barcelona

Hilary Wainwright explores the deepening organisation of the Indignados movement

October 16, 2011
6 min read


Hilary WainwrightHilary Wainwright is a member of Red Pepper's editorial collective and a fellow of the Transnational Institute. @hilarypepper


  share     tweet  

The Catalans have a phrase: ’em planto’. It has a double meaning: ‘I plant’, or ‘I’ve had enough’. At end of the huge 15 October demonstration of Indignados (‘outraged’) in Barcelona – the papers put it at around 250,000 – we were we greeted with an impromptu garden under the Arc de Triomf, the end point of the march. Campaigners for food sovereignty had planted vegetables in well-spaced rows, ready for long term cultivation.

The point was partly an ecological one. But the surrounding placards indicated that the gardeners also intended it to make a symbolic point about the broader significance of the march. ‘Plantemos’ declared a large cardboard placard, meaning: ‘we plant ourselves’ – ‘we stand firm’.

Mariel, who was dressed as a bee – essential to flourishing horticulture and now facing pesticidal destruction – explained that the activists who organised the garden were part of the agro-ecology bloc on the march. The march as a whole had several layers of self-organisation that became apparent at certain moments. There were three main focal themes – all issues on which active alliances had come together over recent months: education (yellow flags), health (green flags) and housing (red flags).

As we approached the Arc de Triomf, someone on a loud hailer announced that the different directions in which those following each of the themes should go, guided by an open lorry carrying the appropriate flag. The idea was that the demonstration would end not with speeches to the assembled masses, on the traditional model. Instead, the plan was to hold assemblies to discuss action and alternatives to cuts and privatisation.

News came through later in the evening that two of these assemblies had taken action, leading an occupation of a third hospital – two that were making redundancies had already been occupied the day before the demonstration. They had also squatted a large unoccupied building to turn it into housing for ten families. Evictions have become a focus of intense conflict in Barcelona as the numbers grow every day.

As well as clusters around themes, it was the regular neighbourhood assemblies, feeding into an occasional assembly of assemblies, that were the organism that gave the demonstration its impressive life.

The neighbourhood assemblies emerged in early summer this year, following the birth of the Indignados movement in the occupations of the squares of Spain and Greece. As the occupation of Barcelona’s Plaça de Catalunya reached its peak towards the end of May and the general assembly in the square began to plan its future, the locus of organised indignation spread to the neighbourhoods – sometimes reviving or connecting with pre-existing neighbourhood associations, sometimes building on quite dense social bonds. For example, the assembly from Sant Andreu, a predominantly working-class neighbourhood in the north of the city, marched for over an hour to reach the demonstration, proudly announcing their assembly on their yellow T-shirts.

Like many on the demonstration, they brought handmade placards. Some of their slogans were specific: ‘education is not for sale’, ‘for high quality education; against the cuts’. Others were more general: ‘nothing to lose; all to gain’, ‘the system is dead, the people are alive’. A lot of these homemade banners highlighted the exhaustion and corruption of the political system, one offering a reward: ‘2,000 euro for an honest politician’. Abstentions could be high in November’s elections.

There is disillusionment too with trade unions. In the occupation of the square earlier this year, it was not only parties that were not wanted, but also the unions. They had been part of a social contract with the government that had let workers down, leading to a fall in wages and weak protection. Most significantly, they showed no concern – and often hostility – to the growing numbers of people, especially among the young, who had no chance of a long term job. Yesterday only the CNT (Confederación Nacional del Trabajo), the union founded by the anarchists and still less bureaucratised than other trade unions, dared show its face.

Interestingly, though, there are signs of workers recovering the confidence to organise in their workplaces as a direct result of the collective action taking place on the streets, and waking up the unions in the process.

Bea recently worked in a call centre. She remembers the fear that made her fellow workers timid and passive. She was impressed that after the occupations of the squares, the call centre workers went on strike over injustices they had previously suffered in silence. ‘It was as if the strength of the example of collective action on the square gave them the confidence, broke through the fear,’ she said.

Where this kind of awakening will lead is unclear. General goals are clearly expressed: real democracy based on popular assemblies in the neighbourhoods, reform of the electoral system for different levels of government, the right of referendums including on the European level, an end to cuts and privatisation of public services, banks and finance under public control, economic development based on co-operation, self-management and a social economy – the list is long and elaborate (see here, for example).

The important, distinguishing feature of this vision of change is that it is not centred on what governments should do. Rather it is a guide to action at many levels, starting with what the people can do collaboratively, through spaces they occupy, resources they reclaim, new sources of power they create. There is a self-consciousness that the creation of far-reaching alternatives will take time. In conversation, the slogans are put in context: ‘we’re going slowly, because we are going far’ is a common saying.

One thing is certain: the energy, creativity and will comes from outside the existing institutions. Bargaining, pressure, people and organisations that bridge the outside and the inside will no doubt be part of the process of change, but the established institutions have lost the initiative.

There is no bravado about this. Among those I talked to on our way home from the Arc de Triomf and the improvised garden, there was anxiety as well as elation at the size and success of the demonstration. ‘I feel some people are looking for leaders,’ said Nuria, a translator and free culture activist.

But in the many levels of organisation producing this impressive show not only of anger but of serious engagement in creating alternatives, it becomes clear that this is not a ‘leaderless’ movement. It is emerging, experimentally perhaps, as movement where leadership is shared and is learnt – a movement that can grow and flourish as well as stand firm.

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

Hilary WainwrightHilary Wainwright is a member of Red Pepper's editorial collective and a fellow of the Transnational Institute. @hilarypepper


Labour Party laws are being used to quash dissent
Richard Kuper writes that Labour's authorities are more concerned with suppressing pro-Palestine activism than with actually tackling antisemitism

Catalan independence is not just ‘nationalism’ – it’s a rebellion against nationalism
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte argue that Catalonia's independence movement is driven by solidarity – and resistance to far-right Spanish nationalists

Tabloids do not represent the working class
The tabloid press claims to be an authentic voice of the working class - but it's run by and for the elites, writes Matt Thompson

As London City Airport turns 30, let’s imagine a world without it
London City Airport has faced resistance for its entire lifetime, writes Ali Tamlit – and some day soon we will win

The first world war sowed the seeds of the Russian revolution
An excerpt from 'October', China Mieville's book revisiting the story of the Russian Revolution

Academies run ‘on the basis of fear’
Wakefield City Academies Trust (WCAT) was described in a damning report as an organisation run 'on the basis of fear'. Jon Trickett MP examines an education system in crisis.

‘There is no turning back to a time when there wasn’t migration to Britain’
David Renton reviews the Migration Museum's latest exhibition

#MeToo is necessary – but I’m sick of having to prove my humanity
Women are expected to reveal personal trauma to be taken seriously, writes Eleanor Penny

Meet the digital feminists
We're building new online tools to create a new feminist community and tackle sexism wherever we find it, writes Franziska Grobke

The Marikana women’s fight for justice, five years on
Marienna Pope-Weidemann meets Sikhala Sonke, a grassroots social justice group led by the women of Marikana

Forget ‘Columbus Day’ – this is the Day of Indigenous Resistance
By Leyli Horna, Marcela Terán and Sebastián Ordonez for Wretched of the Earth

Uber and the corporate capture of e-petitions
Steve Andrews looks at a profit-making petition platform's questionable relationship with the cab company

You might be a centrist if…
What does 'centrist' mean? Tom Walker identifies the key markers to help you spot centrism in the wild

Black Journalism Fund Open Editorial Meeting in Leeds
Friday 13th October, 5pm to 7pm, meeting inside the Laidlaw Library, Leeds University

This leadership contest can transform Scottish Labour
Martyn Cook argues that with a new left-wing leader the Scottish Labour Party can make a comeback

Review: No Is Not Enough
Samir Dathi reviews No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics, by Naomi Klein

Building Corbyn’s Labour from the ground up: How ‘the left’ won in Hackney South
Heather Mendick has gone from phone-banker at Corbyn for Leader to Hackney Momentum organiser to secretary of her local party. Here, she shares her top tips on transforming Labour from the bottom up

Five things to know about the independence movement in Catalonia
James O'Nions looks at the underlying dynamics of the Catalan independence movement

‘This building will be a library!’ From referendum to general strike in Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte report from the Catalan general strike, as the movements prepare to build a new republic

Chlorine chickens are just the start: Liam Fox’s Brexit trade free-for-all
A hard-right free marketer is now in charge of our trade policy. We urgently need to develop an alternative vision, writes Nick Dearden

There is no ‘cult of Corbyn’ – this is a movement preparing for power
The pundits still don’t understand that Labour’s new energy is about ‘we’ not ‘me’, writes Hilary Wainwright

Debt relief for the hurricane-hit islands is the least we should do
As the devastation from recent hurricanes in the Caribbean becomes clearer, the calls for debt relief for affected countries grow stronger, writes Tim Jones

‘Your credit score is not sufficient to enter this location’: the risks of the ‘smart city’
Jathan Sadowski explains techno-political trends of exclusion and enforcement in our cities, and how to overcome this new type of digital oppression

Why I’m standing with pregnant women and resisting NHS passport checks
Dr Joanna Dobbin says the government is making migrant women afraid to seek healthcare, increasing their chances of complications or even death

‘Committees in Defence of the Referendum’: update from Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte on developments as the Catalan people resist the Spanish state's crackdown on their independence referendum

The rights and safety of LGBTQ+ people are not guaranteed – we must continue to fight for them
Kennedy Walker looks at the growth in hate attacks at a time when the Tory government is being propped up by homophobes