A new Spanish Revolution? Tahrir comes to Madrid as crisis of democracy deepens

by · May 19, 2011


Dawn breaks in Puerta del Sol

In 2006, migration and insecurity were the first and second worries of the population. Today, they are the last ones, and the levels of insecurity about the job situation and the crisis have gone [through] the roof.

— Gemma Galdon Clavell, 18 May 2011

How quickly the tide can turn.

On the eve of local and regional elections, protests have erupted across Spain calling for a rejection of the major parties over their unwillingness to address the needs of ordinary people in the economic crisis. Large demonstrations called 15-M were held simultaneously in over 50 towns and cities on 15 May, and in Madrid and elsewhere riot police attacked activists. Since then protesters have created a Tahrir Square style camp in Puerta del Sol, the central square in Madrid. The renewed protests were banned by Spain’s electoral commission, apparently because the democratic right to protest is not as important as the smooth running of unrepresentative “democratic” elections. Tens of thousands have defied the ban, again paralleling Egypt’s uprising. Similar camps have been set up in other locations (including Seville and Barcelona).

The BBC reports:

Spanish media say the protesters are attacking the country’s political establishment with slogans such as “violence is earning 600 euros”, “if you don’t let us dream we won’t let you sleep” and “the guilty ones should pay for the crisis”.

The atmosphere in the square has been quite festive, with the crowd singing songs, playing games and debating.

They are demanding jobs, better living standards and a fairer system of democracy.

As Gemma Galdon Clavell explains, the protests are the coalescence of several strands of activism. First there was the campaign against the draconian Sinde Law, which banned peer-to-peer file sharing websites. After this law was passed with the support of both the ruling Socialist (PSOE) and opposition conservative Popular (PP) Parties despite an extensive public campaign, a vibrant #nolesvotes movement sprang into life, calling on people not to vote for either of them. But the real turn came with the involvement of masses of young people organising the Democracia Real Ya (“Real Democracy Now”) movement, initiated through Facebook networking. These forces came together to call 15-M, and to date more traditional centres of resistance like unions and political parties have been marginal to the systematic organisation of the protests.

A political and social crisis

The demands of the movement reflect the deep crisis of political representation in Spain, where Jose-Luis Zapatero’s PSOE government has presided over a massive rise in unemployment in just a few short years — the rate currently stands at 21.3 percent, the highest in the European Union. This has provoked particular outrage because a “centre-Left” government has been clearly committed to making ordinary people pay for a crisis widely understood to be the fault of bankers and the rich.

In driving through austerity, Zapatero has not been shy of using the tactics of the Right — using a Franco-era law to smash an air traffic controllers’ strike. Zapatero mobilised the military to force the controllers to work at gunpoint even after they had accepted cuts to wages and conditions. Only the week before he had addressed a meeting of the bosses of Spain’s 37 biggest corporations to announce scrapping income support for the unemployed, new tax breaks for business and airport privatisations. Until the 15-M movement erupted, bitterness at PSOE had opened the possibility of major electoral gains for the PP.

When liz_beths and I visited Spain last month there was a feeling among many on the Left that resistance to the crisis had stalled since the high point of a massive one-day general strike last year. But even as people were talking about this, searching for inspiration from events in Athens and Cairo, health workers in Catalonia suddenly exploded into action against hospital cuts being carried out by the recently elected Catalan Nationalist government, with strikes, protests and blockades of main roads jamming up Barcelona.

Yet in many ways this crisis of Spanish politics is not so different to what we face here in Australia, with millions starting to think that the democratic system on offer is broken and perhaps beyond repair. These words, describing the partisan hollowness of electoral campaigning in recent weeks, could easily have described our own political elite’s antics:

In the past few weeks, candidates from the two major political forces have avoided talking about what ideas they are offering voters and have instead opted to strike the emotional chords of supporters by banging away at their opponents, even to the point of ridiculing them — a guaranteed way to grab headlines.

Or as an editorial in El Pais made clear, it is the mainstream political system that has brought this movement on itself:

To substitute political debate with mere advertising; to endorse corruption in one’s own party and denounce it in another; to make the public interest a mere pretext to legitimize the ambitions of a faction; and seeing the struggle for power as an end in itself, independently of any specified program, are errors that are undermining the democratic system.

But the new movement doesn’t just reject the mendacity and self-interest of the political class; it goes to the heart of the social crisis caused by the recession and austerity measures:

“The economy and unemployment are key to the protest because that binds all of us together,” said Jon Aguirre Such, a spokesman for the Real Democracy Now […]

“In this crisis, while some have gotten rich, most people have less income,” Aguirre said.

Hegemony unravelling

This is the vital point Clavell makes in the quote at the top: The sheer scale of the economic crisis has overwhelmed the ruling elite’s ability to spin reactionary counter-narratives, to turn the crisis into a story where minorities are to be scapegoated and “we” must “all” contribute to repaying “our” debt. It is here that the Spanish story is — in quantitative terms — different from the Australian. Australia’s narrow escape from the worst of the global crisis, in part through massive state intervention and in part through the luck of being tied to the Chinese boom (itself state-driven), has meant that the sickness of politics plays out more like a chronic, grumbling infection than overwhelming sepsis. Here the sick patient is not being carted to intensive care, but transient fluctuations in symptoms lead to flashes of denial that there is really a problem at all, only to have a new spike of fever dash hopes of “new paradigms” somehow producing an auto-correction on the part of the politicians.

Of course this is not to say that Spain’s political class cannot try to connect with the widespread anger or even play some type of anti-political card. Already some PSOE leaders are trying to position themselves as supporters of a movement that is in large party directed against their party. And Izquierda Unida (the United Left), a reformist formation that holds some sway among Spain’s wider anti-capitalist and social movement Left, is placing itself firmly within the protesters’ camp despite its history of collaboration with neoliberal policies at local and regional levels.

It is here that any new politics that emerges from the movement will need to start articulating a positive program that ties rejection of the miserable state of the official democratic system with social demands that don’t accept the logic of neoliberalism and austerity (even its kinder, gentler social liberal variants). As Egypt so vividly demonstrates, such movements can rapidly inspire mass politicisation and feed into a myriad of economic and political struggles that break the bounds of “business as usual”. Of course Spain, with its historically much more developed capitalist state and civil society, will not produce an identical pattern of struggle or elite response to that in Egypt. But the essential logic of a deep social crisis no longer being able to be neatly reformulated and resolved through existing institutional mechanisms is the same.

Yesterday’s editorial in El Pais, while expressing sympathy towards protesters’ demands, defines the elite strategic response towards the radicalisation:

[I]t would be one thing to say that official politics is failing to produce an adequate response because the parliamentary and constitutional system is inherently incapable of doing so, and quite another to consider that the political parties and their leaders are failing to make effective use of the existing system.

There is a disturbing ambiguity here, since it might suggest a questioning of the whole system, without clearly identifying the alternative — unless the latter harks back to utopias that ended in tragedy. The problem lies not so much in being inside or outside the system, as in keeping it in mind that contempt for the parliamentary and constitutional system may serve just and noble causes, but also abject ones inimical to liberty.

It’s a funny kind of “liberty” El Pais is defending here, one carried on against the interests and will of the people. Indeed, it is a system of liberty delivering “tragedy” to millions in the here and now, yet warning them that to dream of better would be even worse.