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Spain’s radical tide

Spain’s indignados have driven a lasting shift in the political climate of the country, argues Ana Méndez de Andés of the Observatorio Metropolitano collective in Madrid

April 1, 2014
10 min read

One of the best-aimed slogans of the 15M movement – the series of protests and square occupations that took place in Spain during 2011–2012 – was ‘No es una crisis, es una estafa’: ‘It’s not a crisis, it’s a rip‑off.’ The so-called crisis showed its true face as a set of strategies implemented in different combinations around the world: from the IMF/World Bank structural adjustments in Latin America and Africa and the extension of inhuman labour conditions in ‘under-developed’ countries and beyond, to the financialisation of all aspects of our lives.

In the Spanish case, the ‘crisis’ took place after 15-plus years of apparent prosperity built on cheap credit and a property bubble. This was an economic model intimately interwoven with the European project, the long neoliberal process that consolidated financial power on a continental scale. But it was also a mechanism of economic restructuring that deepened the specialisations of the different European regions and produced a centre-periphery structure, reinforced by the financial crisis, and allowed Germany to develop its economy at the expense of the PIIGS (Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece and Spain). The consequences of this spatial fix are not only of concern in PIIGS countries, but can be found continent-wide in worsening labour conditions, increased housing problems, the rise of private debt and the privatisation of public services.

Political sea change

The past few years have seen demonstrations and assemblies, civil disobedience and street confrontations, barricades and camps in streets and squares across the world. In Spain, these have been accompanied by a sea change in the overall political climate. This was reflected in surveys during June 2011 showing 81 per cent support for the indignados’ demands (with slogans such as ‘This looks like democracy, but it’s not’ and ‘We are not merchandise in the hands of politicians and bankers’). Support was still at 78 per cent in May 2013.

At the same time, though, there has been little material change. In spite of the mass social mobilisations, the government has been able to implement all the restructuring and austerity measures demanded by the ‘Troika’ of the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund. More recently, it has also brought in restrictive new legislation, such as on abortion rights and security, as part of its attempt to proceed with ‘business as usual’.

Notwithstanding the regime’s endurance, this crisis of representation and material discontent can only reinforce the urge for real democracy in both politics and the economy. The 15M movement has not only involved significant growth in the organised activist scene, but also the subversive infiltration of its political modus operandi into more traditional organisations.

For example, the resistance to the privatisation of health and education services (triggered by legislation approved by the Socialists in 1997) has organised itself in human mareas (tides) that distinguish themselves during mass demonstrations by the colours they wear, with white standing for health, green for education, and so on. These have been mobilised through autonomous assemblies in workplaces and local communities, diffuse networks and self-organised demonstrations, with a presence in trade unions and a clear recognition of the need to ally with broad sectors of society for the defence of a ‘public’ or ‘common’ sphere, going beyond demands on wages and working conditions.

Madrid, the neoliberal laboratory for the Partido Popular (Spain’s conservative party, in power for almost 20 years at a regional and municipal level), has witnessed a series of failed attempts to restart the accumulation cycle based on real estate, combined with the privatisation of public services. These include its Olympic bids and the EuroVegas casino project. Here, the impact of austerity and the strong reliance on the welfare state has undermined some of the old political allegiances. For instance, the occupation of La Princesa hospital, one of the most important episodes in the long fight against the privatisation of public health infrastructure, saw a crowd of old ladies with pearl earrings and fur coats on the main street of the neighbourhood, a traditional Partido Popular bastion. Such scenes demonstrate why the ruling party has fallen 20 points in the polls in just two years.

The marea blanca (white tide) in Madrid has deployed powerful and effective strategies, from demonstrations and occupations to a popular consultation that gathered almost a million votes against privatisation. It also initiated legal actions that ended with the Madrid supreme court suspending the privatisation plans for six public hospitals, the resignation of the regional health minister and the withdrawal of the privatisation proposal by the local government.

Another effective struggle has seen more than one tenth of the population in the Balearic Islands joining marea verde (green tide) demonstrations. The marea verde opposition to a decree imposing the teaching of three languages in schools (rather than the use of Catalan as the main language) turned what could have been a narrowly nationalist cause into a series of democratic demands around the question of who is taking the decisions that affect public services. In January, meanwhile, local resistance to a proposed new upmarket boulevard in Burgos, northern Spain, ended in clashes with riot police and the withdrawal of the project.

New politics

The Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca (Platform of the Mortgage‑Afflicted or PAH) is one of the best examples of this new politics. It makes use of mutual aid, popular campaigns, legislative pressure, court appeals, direct action, squatting, popular media and militant activism at all levels, from local motions and assemblies, to the national parliament and the European Court of Human Rights. In doing so, it often overrides the traditional left/right differences by prioritising the bottom/top division.

Initiated five years ago by six activists from the V de Vivienda network armed only with a blog, PAH now comprises 205 local groups and 20 squatted buildings. More than a thousand people have been rehoused through the movement as people have made empty houses repossessed by the banks their new homes. This growth was fuelled by the large number of ‘Stop Evictions’ groups formed during the 15M assemblies. The diverse nature of these assemblies meant thousands of Ecuadorians and other latino migrants, ripped off by banks’ overvaluations and bad practices, joined the groups. As part of its effective direct action campaign, Stop Evictions has involved different social agents, activists, neighbours and people affected by foreclosures of all ages, nationalities and conditions, successfully stopping more than a thousand evictions since 2009.

After a wave of eviction-related suicides PAH submitted a citizens’ legislative initiative (iniciativa legislativa popular) to parliament to try to force the government to change the mortgage laws. PAH collected 1.4 million signatures in support of the initiative – almost a million more than the 500,000 required. When parliament rejected the initiative PAH started the escraches campaign (the term and practice originated in Argentina, when people publicly ‘marked’ those involved in military junta repression by holding rallies outside their homes). PAH organised peaceful rallies in front of MPs’ and government ministers’ homes, ‘marking’ them before Spanish citizens.

The escraches provoked a vicious media campaign by conservative newspapers that reduced their initial 90 per cent popular support to a ‘mere’ 70 per cent, according to opinion polls. However, the public prosecutor’s attempt to criminalise the protests was quashed by the Madrid high court, which ruled that the escraches were a ‘collective manifestation of freedom of expression’ and ‘a channel for the democratic participation principles’.

As well as challenging foreclosures case by case, PAH has also taken cases to the European court and has successfully challenged abusive mortgage clauses, the banks’ right to hold a stock of empty houses and the evictions of squatted buildings. PAH’s latest campaign, the Obra Social (Social Programme) seeks to reoccupy buildings owned by banks bailed out with public money. The campaign is focusing on SAREB, the company responsible for managing assets transferred by the four nationalised Spanish financial institutions. SAREB currently holds more than €70 billion in assets with half of its capital in the hands of the main Spanish banks, a decision forced by EU policies through the Memorandum of Understanding. The Obra Social is a direct exercise of the right to housing that the government is not able to safeguard and tries to prefigure a rental housing stock publicly owned and collectively managed.

Towards a constituent process

The 15M movement and its offshoots marks the beginning of a process of dismissing the old order in which a social majority demands radical change in the structural conditions that shape our political life. The burgeoning conflicts and struggles stumble against an undemocratic, besieged state and a lack of institutional political expression, which should not only represent this majority but, more importantly, develop the existing struggles in all their transforming potential.

Different initiatives are now posing the necessity of a ‘constituent’ process to found new, truly representative political institutions. This is not seen as just being about the formulation of a new national constitution (a possibility that has actually been considered by the existing establishment parties as an attempt at political regeneration) but as an opportunity to restructure the conditions of our life in common from a radically democratic point of view.

With this aim in mind, we have seen electoral initiatives such as Partido X, Podemos and Procés Constituent (see below), and the preparation of new municipal candidates in the Madrid region, as well as proposals arising out of the wider movement, such as the Marea Democrática. We hope all of them will change the institutional scene over the next few years to the same extent that the 15M movement changed the social and political climate.

The Observatorio Metropolitano is a militant research project based in Madrid. It has published books on the ‘metropolitan territory’ of Madrid, Spanish capitalism, the financial crisis and the democratic response in Spain and Europe. See www.observatoriometropolitano.org for publications in Spanish. Isidro López and Betaríz García also contributed to this article, which is ‘copyleft’ under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike licence

Parties and initiatives

Podemos is an avowedly left-wing political initiative that arose from the desire to influence the traditional left parties (such as Izquierda Unida, the electoral vehicle of the Spanish Communist Party).

It attempts to democratise existing political structures and gain popularity in the media to drive the political project.

Partido X is born from the techno-politics practices and knowledge developed inside the 15M movement. It advocates a kind of ‘wikidemocracy’ to create a new political future using the power of modern social media to make direct democracy a reality. In this new politics, representatives would be elected directly using the internet. These elected representatives would put forward proposals on the net that would then be voted on and adjusted. The political programme is created by online discussions.

Radical nun Teresa Forcades i Vila and economist Arcadi Oliveres’ 2013 Manifesto for the convening of a constituent process in Catalonia has resulted in a new wave of local assemblies across the region. It proposes independence for Catalonia through a model of social mobilisation and self-organisation. Rather than running in elections, the movement seeks to bring pressure for democratic reform on Catalonia’s political parties from below.

The Marea Democrática (Democratic Tide) has launched a Democracy Charter, around which it seeks to organise to create a constituent popular assembly.