An exciting mix of 1968 and 1789, but where next for the #spanishrevolution?

by · May 25, 2011


Special Guest Post from Barcelona by Gemma Galdon Clavell

On 22 May, a week after thousands of people across Spain turned a series of demonstrations into massive sleep-ins that are still holding strong, the conservative Popular Party (PP) won a historic victory in the municipal and regional elections. During the ensuing celebration of the results, PP supporters shouted “This is democracy, and not what is happening in Sol [the name of the square where protesters have set up camp in Madrid]” and “Sol, dissolution”. The conservatives, therefore, see the #15m (15 May) movement as the act of a defeated Left that is no longer relevant, now that Spain is openly right-wing.

The Socialists, in their turn, are in disarray. Prime Minister Zapatero has led the biggest, harshest attack on welfare and wages since the end of the Civil War in 1939. Appealing to the need to please “the markets” and implement “responsible” policies, the Socialists have seen their voters abandon them en masse, notwithstanding the continued use of the fear card by Zapatero: “the situation would be worse were the PP in government”.
Probably so (we’ll find out soon). But it is difficult to understand how the Socialists have come to forget that the combination of tax breaks for some and cuts for many is unlikely to go down well in their constituencies. Or how in desperate situations such as those faced by hundreds of thousands of families who currently have no kind of income, any political alternative is better than to keep on waiting for a promised recovery that feels like a collective suicide.
So the polls show a massive loss of support for the Socialists, and all-knowing political analysts frown upon a country that is not “centre-Left” anymore. The #15m movement is thus irrelevant, some say, having been unable to affect politics the proper way — their way, the vote way.
The calls for a vote against the major parties (#nolesvotes), however, seem to have had a bit of an impact at the polls, and there are now 39 political parties with some sort of representation in local councils, compared to 19 in 2007. The United Left (IU) has increased its support by over 200,000 votes, for instance. But dismissing the #spanishrevolution because it did not manage to turn the tide against the conservative Right misses the point: the sleep-ins did not change the outcome of the elections because if those who are sleeping in the squares and joining the mass assemblies thought there was a party that could represent them or channel their anger they would have voted instead of camping.
The spontaneity of the #15m events show that the #spanishrevolution is an act of desperation and hopeful hopelessness. An instinctive “enough is enough” that may or may not turn into an organized resistance or a political “thing”, that may or may not shake into relevance an institutional “left-wing Left” that was unable to predict or join the #15m in its early stages, or to recognize its voters in the faces of the “indignant”.
So far, the square occupations are, above all, a space to debate, learn and discuss. Universities of critical thinking, collaboration, solidarity and togetherness. A place where many people hear ideas and experience ways of organizing they had never seen before. The squares are transforming a whole generation, and this is relevant in itself. But the future is unclear — the sleep-ins will continue until next weekend, when the assemblies will decide on the next steps. A national day of action has been called on 19 June, but the newly elected local governments are already making it clear they will not let the occupations continue much longer. Moreover, time is taking its toll: people are getting tired, and factions are getting organized.
This is not to say that the movement is deteriorating — the energy is still amazing. While the camps resemble a lively youth camp in a World Social Forum, with their thousand meetings happening at the same time, the assemblies are like nothing I’ve ever seen before: the patience, the commitment, the maturity is just indescribable. The plans to extend the sleep-ins to more places and, in major cities, to decentralize them, are managing to get hundreds of people in new campsites, assemblies and cacerolazos (pot-banging) at the local and neighbourhood level. Moreover, the movement seems to have a life of its own, with individuals taking it with them wherever they go: in one day alone (24 May), protesters sneaked into the local television network in Murcia to read their manifesto, an individual demanded “real democracy now” at a EU debate on the Spanish Coastal Law and it was made public that a person was arrested on election day for wearing a t-shirt saying “I pay for my own suits” (in relation to a corruption scandal in Valencia). The level of uncoordinated coordination, where people contribute to the movement wherever they are and however they can, making it theirs and feeding into a wider collective idea is something I have only seen rarely and for short periods of time.
However, on its own the #15m movement will probably stick to one of its slogans: “we’re going slow because we’re going far”. There is no blueprint, which makes it harder to predict the process, the goal or the outcome: how does one get “real democracy”? What would the goals of a constituent process be? Are the proposals to be directed at the “software” or the “hardware” of the system? Is it about different policies or different politics? In this sense, the #spanishrevolution is less like Tahrir and more of an exciting mix between 1968 and 1789.
In the immediate future, I feel that the sleep-ins are not sustainable unless the movement finds ways of gaining momentum. Militancy has its limits, and the Right thrives on decaying almost-revolutions. There are, however, a couple of factors that could provide the momentum — a connection with workplace struggles (especially in Catalunya, where the public sector workers have shown amazing militancy in the last few weeks and the universities are beginning to move) and the spread of the Tahrir spirit to other countries in Europe (going beyond the expat-led support initiatives so far). The call for a day of action on 19 June could prove key in working with these two possibilities.
Whatever the process, and whatever the outcome, History is proving to be in its best shape for a long time.
A version of this post first appeared earlier today at Gemma’s blog.