Whatever happened to the Indignados? 1: Radical struggle

by · March 17, 2014

David Flores TorrecillasLUKE STOBART with the first instalment of a special three-part analysis of the radicalisation that has swept Spain since the 15-M protests of 2011.



Anti-politics and the 15-M movement

On 15 May 2011 the new collectives Juventud Sin Futuro (Youth Without Future) and ¡Democracia Real Ya! (Real Democracy Now!), demonstrated in Madrid using the slogan “we are not goods in the hands of politicians and bankers”. At the end of the protest a group began a small occupation in Puerta del Sol and, after being forcibly evicted by police, thousands joined them in reoccupying the square. Over the next few days mass copycat occupations would spread across the Spanish state, creating what the media labelled the Indignados (“outraged”) movement, but which activists preferred to call the 15 May movement (15-M). Our mass demonstrations and daily mass assemblies became the most important protest movement since the end of Franco’s fascism in the 1970s, involving a fifth of the total population according to one survey. 15-M was also a refreshingly radical movement: defying legal bans on protests that coincide with elections, surrounding parliaments (forcing the Catalan president to fly in for a vote by helicopter) and organising every activity of the camp and movement through “participatory” democracy. The Puerta del Sol camp called for measures such as cancellation of bank bailouts, increased taxation of speculation and the rich, and rejection of privatisation and wage and pension cuts. The Plaça Catalunya camp in Barcelona went further, announcing it would “completely change the world” through nationalising the banks under “social control”, scrapping Aliens Laws, introducing binding referenda for important issues, and other measures.

A hallmark of the movement was bitter rejection of the political establishment (as articulated in the movement’s slogan “no nos representan” —they don’t represent us). This cry was particularly directed at the “social democratic” PSOE — then in government and applying savage “austerity”— and the conservative Partido Popular (PP) of Mariano Rajoy. Both have dominated a “two-party system” based on “rotation” between similarly anti-social, neoliberal and corrupt projects. “No nos representan” was also aimed at Spain’s large and bureaucratic unions, which had followed the 2010 general strike with the signing of a hike in the pension age — widely and rightly seen as a sell out (and not the first). All really-existing politics were held with suspicion, including the ex-Communist United Left (Izquierda Unida; IU) or centre-left “regional” parties. Even the revolutionary Left was formally excluded from the square camps, although its activists rarely encountered hostility.

Arguably the Indignados have been the clearest (and most-inspiring) example of the new “anti-politics” that has followed the hollowing out of mainstream politics in the neoliberal period, in which “whoever you vote for you get the same”. Because this idea is central to the following analysis it is worth examining what anti-politics is and how it has emerged and developed in the Iberian case — as I believe this provides some universal insights regarding contemporary politics today and helps us understand the evolution of the movement in the Spanish state.

Put crudely anti-politics is popular detachment from mainstream politics and has been more of a mood than a movement in the English-speaking world (with the important exception of Occupy), but was dramatically illuminated when celebrity Russell Brand’s passionately denounced mainstream politics in a BBC interview that went viral. In their key analysis ‘Anti-politics: elephant in the room’, Elizabeth Humphrys and Tad Tietze give a theoretical account of such detachment from what is normally described in Spain as “institutional” or “official” politics using Italian revolutionary Antonio Gramsci’s ideas on the state and civil society. Gramsci pointed out that the modern state is a “distillation” of capitalist social relations (a product of the historical triumph of the bourgeoisie) with interests “separate from and opposed to those of the civil society on which it is founded”. Its hegemony (and that of the class it represents) is guaranteed ultimately by coercion (or the threat of coercion) against the “subaltern” (subordinate) classes, but more frequently is attained through “enwrap[ping] civil society to reshape and incorporate resistance from below”. In liberal democracies the parliamentary process is pivotal to this absorption, and while unions remain essential organisations for the working class to defend its conditions, their leaders usually are partly incorporated also (particularly in the Spanish case where unions are mainly funded through the state — although on the basis of the votes they obtain in workplace elections).

Humphrys and Tietze apply the Gramscian approach to celebrate the growing gap between the majority and our “representatives”:

Crucially, this detachment is not caused by the political class being less “representative” of their social base than in some previous era; rather, its lack of a social base makes the political class’ actual role in representing the interests of the state within civil society more apparent.

Under capitalism the ruling class doesn’t directly govern; there is an apparent separation between economics (relations of production / class exploitation) and politics (organised around the state, with its political class, and resting on apparent equality of citizens reflecting equality of exchange in the market). This creates the appearance of representation, one that masks the underlying social relations of domination. It is this appearance that is now breaking down.

In Gramsci’s Italy an “organic crisis” of the state led to a major break between the social classes and their traditional parties (followed by both a wave of mass workplace occupations and — after their failure — the rise of Mussolini’s Black Shirts). In some countries, such as Britain, the Netherlands and in Eastern Europe, anti-politics so far has been dominated by the populist and fascist Right (although in Britain it was also a feature of the radical student struggles in 2010). As well as far-right growth being aided by the legitimisation of racism by the political establishment, it also has been boosted by a growing crisis of legitimacy for the European Union — the European ruling classes’ central political project. In countries such as Greece and Spain, however, anti-politics has mostly taken the form of radical social struggle and, more recently, the growth of large radical Left parties (although in Greece we also have seen the frightening advance of the Nazi Golden Dawn).


A brief history of anti-politics

Anti-politics has flourished across Europe since the large parties united in response to the crisis to bring in savage cuts in wages, conditions and the “social wage” (welfare and social provision). In the Spanish state such unity even saw the two main parties conspire to reform the constitution to prevent future governments from borrowing to pay for services (which they sneakily did during the August holidays to avoid protests). However, rejection of “politics” has developed over a longer period as a consequence of the political dominance of neoliberalism, and particularly the conversion of social democracy to this ruling-class hegemonic project.

There is no clear pattern to its evolution but we can say three things. Firstly it seems to have been strongest in parliamentary democracies where the ruling class scored major victories against the popular classes. These include the US and Spain as well as two of the countries that, thanks to vicious military dictatorships in the 1970s, were a test-bed for the dismantling of public social provision — Chile and Argentina. In Argentina street revolts overthrew a series of presidents with the slogan “get rid of them all”. More recently in Chile the students of a mainly privatised education system have been fighting to roll back neoliberalism in education and wider society — a struggle that had an impact on the recent elections in which Michelle Bachelet returned to presidential office promising major educational reform. It is relevant to add that the student movement has suffered divisions over the decision by several student leaders to reach agreements with Bachelet.

Secondly, internationally we have seen a process of evolution of anti-neoliberal politics, including where the development has been more limited. Neil Davidson identifies how the governments that led the roll back of previous social and organisational gains by the working class were normally rejected in the polls (including in Chile, the US and Britain). Where these “vanguard” neoliberal governments were social democratic (such as in Germany and Spain) parties grew to the left of them (such as Die Linke and the Spanish IU). Where social democracy took over from a right-wing “vanguard” little change took place. Instead there was

a transition from what, in Gramsci’s terms, was a war of manoeuvre to a war of position: the first involved a frontal onslaught on the labour movement and the dismantling of formerly embedded social democratic institutions (“roll-back”); the second involved a more molecular process with the gradual commodification of huge new areas of social life and the creation of new institutions specifically constructed on neoliberal principles (“roll-out”).

Davidson summed this process up as being a “transition from regime of reorientation to regime of consolidation”.

At this second stage arose arguably the first major anti-politics movement — an international revolt against neoliberalism in the form of the “anti-globalisation movement”, which particularly targeted the summits of transnational institutions such as the IMF, WTO and European Union. This had an important difference with the more recent struggles: revolt was not aimed directly at domestic politics, which was even sometimes treated as powerless in the face of transnational capital. However, rejection of participation in the movement by political parties was a strong feature in some networks and countries (including the Italian Tutti Bianchi, the anti-capitalist networks that mobilised against the WTO in Seattle, and the Global Resistance Movement in the Spanish state). Parties were formally excluded from the World Social Forum (WSF), the annual meeting place for activists, and from its regional equivalents. This banning was partly due to the influence of leading members of its international committee who were members of political parties that did not need the Forum to gain a platform (for example the ruling PT in Brazil, where the WSF was first held). However the ban, which particularly disadvantaged the anti-capitalist Left, was rarely questioned by participants.

When George W. Bush launched the invasion of Iraq, reminding us of the imperial role of the US state in the global economy, activists from the new social movements joined Left parties in broad coalitions such as the British Stop the War Coalition or the Catalan Aturem la Guerra. This unity, made possible by the brutality, dishonesty and hypocrisy of those who had decided to go to war, as well as opposition to the war by many centre-left parties outside government (itself encouraged by the depth of popular anti-war sentiment), made the movement far larger than normal, and reminds us of the continued relevance of coalitions involving the mainstream left to fight over specific issues that include traditional organisations and the need to recognise that some differences remain between the traditional Right and Left. (The tactical need to make some distinction has re-emerged recently since PSOE chose to participate in a large campaign against the PP’s highly regressive bill to take away abortion rights.)

In March 2004 the PP government was ejected in an election shock after attempting to blame the Madrid bombings on the Basque terrorist organisation ETA and thereby avoid these attacks being seen as a backlash against Spain’s participation in the occupation of Iraq. An important role in the PP’s defeat was played by the radical wing of the anti-war movement (or activists autonomously related to the movement) who responded to the increasing police evidence pointing to government manipulation by improvising via SMS messaging protests outside the PP headquarters on the eve of the elections. These reached millions when state TV programming was interrupted by the PP candidate (current president Rajoy) appearing on TV to call for the police to clear the streets. As Toni Negri has observed, the network methods and forms of this movement bore a strong similarity with the far larger and more dramatic ones that would emerge much later.

There is a reason why anti-politics lost much of its constituency in the years between 2004 and 2011. The new Zapatero PSOE government came to office riding a wave of mobilisations (not just anti-war but over environmental issues, a general strike against labour “reforms”, struggles by immigrants and their supporters, and others). Supporters of the deposed Right were very aware of this, desperately sending SMS messages to mobilise their ranks against the new government. So too, it seems, was the Zapatero government, which surprised people on the Left by introducing a series of progressive policies. The most dramatic of these was the immediate withdrawal of Spanish troops from Iraq, which represented a victory for the international anti-war movement. Zapatero also legalised marriage for gay and lesbian people and cancelled an environmentally damaging “National Hydrological Plan”, which had been the target of mass protests. This had three effects: it made Zapatero popular (with Zapatero’s approval ratings soon rising above 50% and the PSOE increasing its electoral support in the European elections in June); it encouraged the Right and the Church to turn to street mobilisations against the government; and it disarmed social movement activists, who found it difficult to mobilise the large numbers we had become used to. In other words much of the base of anti-politics seemed to “reconcile” itself with social democracy, or at least stay at home. This would later change after the serious limits to Zapatero’s liberal reform program became clear — including his role in quashing the Catalan parliament’s demand for greater Catalan autonomy, and his collusion in a housing bubble that would prevent young people from leaving their family homes and eventually crash the economy). However Zapatero would attempt to keep Left voters on board even two years into the crisis when he received criticisms from the international financial establishment for not signing up for austerity, instead promising to “never make workers pay for the crisis”. But in the spring of 2010 Zapatero made an about turn: slashing public sector wages as the first of a series of cuts packages. Support for the PSOE plummeted, yet to recover, and the stage was set for the rebirth of radical politics with a mass appeal.

The experience under the first Zapatero government is open to interpretation. Clearly hard anti-politics had a more limited constituency than under the crisis. A lot of people hostile to (official) politics did shift to supporting or at least tolerating the new government. The lack of large mobilisations against the PSOE government in the early years may also have coincided with the decline of protest after the invasion of Iraq, a decline that was both local and international. (A great many ordinary people felt the bombings themselves or the lying about their origin led to the PSOE riding back into office, not the anti-war protests — even though it is likely that these played a substantial part. The popularity of the (very limited) return to left-wing policies merely underscored the extent of discontent towards social democracy’s general political capitulation.

Emmanuel Rodríguez argues that under the current long-term financial crisis social democracy is committing political “suicide” due to the impossibility of traditional reform. He maintains that this arises from the collapse of the banks’ balances and the financial “compensation” attained from speculative investments in the bond markets of the European periphery, which discourages states and the EU from intervening to prevent the spiralling gap between the interest countries like Spain pay on their debts and that paid by Germany — the usual point of comparison. This gap and the way money markets profit from volatility has forced the peripheral states into a vicious circle of cuts and debt (although the whole process has been tempered somewhat due to ECB guarantees for European banks). There might be more we could add to Rodríguez’s (and fellow Observatorio Metropolitano writer Isidro López’s) over-financialised explanation(s) but they make an essential political point about the historic dead-end social-democracy is entering and help us understand how anti-politics became a defining feature of the current period.

In terms of the specific form of anti-politics that emerged in the Spanish state, the young analyst Brais Fernández, speaking in a fascinating debate with López, suggests that there was a socioeconomic basis for this. For Fernández, a member of Izquierda Anticapitalista, the 15 May movement is “a class movement” in which

faced with the unfavourable correlation of forces a sector of the working class that could not express itself in the factories, known as “the precariat”, in the end seeks common places to explain and tackle common problems.

I would say that, while sometimes there has been unhelpful exaggeration regarding the extent of precariousness in the advanced capitalist states (which has sometimes muddied debates on the low level of workplace struggle in recent years), this is not the case in the Spanish state. There, 67 percent of young workers are on insecure fixed-term contracts, making union membership and workplace activity substantially harder (but not impossible). Thus, Fernández surely has a point. However, I’m sure that he himself would agree with adding (for the sake of clarification) that “flexible” employment is also major beyond the manufacturing sector and that locating the struggle outside the workplace also fitted the exclusion from employment of a mass of young people (including very many unemployed graduates — a social group that journalist Paul Mason has usefully identified as playing a notable role in the recent global wave of revolts and revolutions).

Infusing the struggle with indignación

The 15-M movement was never just a political movement but also a radical movement of struggle. This was clear from the movement’s protests and the inclusion in them of groups in struggle (such as teachers, hospital workers and telecommunications workers). After the central camps voted to dismantle and decentralise into the neighbourhoods (a decision boycotted by a minority of hard autonomists), many activists joined hospital users and staff in occupying health centres against cuts. In the following months the neighbourhood assemblies, which began with hundreds of participants, declined. But the movement still managed to organise demonstrations of hundreds of thousands (from the northern autumn of 2011, in tandem with similar Occupy movements in dozens of countries). At the end of an international day of action in October 2011, 15-M activists in Barcelona occupied a hospital and a university faculty, and joined evicted families in occupying an empty block of flats. In September the following year local assemblies in Madrid participated in an impressive attempt to “surround Congress” in Madrid, which the police brutally attacked and a government representative described as an “attempted coup”.

Sometimes the influence of autonomism in the movement (particularly as general participation has dwindled) has held the movement back. An example is when the movement or influential sections of it (such as ¡Democracia Real Ya!) have refused to join demonstrations against the cuts alongside the major unions. This sectarian attitude has declined over time, however. In July 2012 the Madrid 15-M and the unions jointly protested the bank bailout and new public sector wage cuts. This convergence coincided with a rise in radical action by union members, including the dramatic miners’ march to Madrid, which was received by over 100,000 people and took place during a militant strike involving pitched battles with police, soon followed by unofficial road blocks by a variety of groups of public sector workers.

Asturian miners march into Madrid

Another weakness of the movement was its long and frequently ineffective meetings, based on “consensus” decision-making and failing to prioritise basic demands around which to mobilise the movement and wider layers beyond it. Such shortcomings were encouraged by an influential autonomist hard core (particularly in the Barcelona camp, where anarchist symbols abounded), which tended to treat the democratised spaces as an end in themselves. This strategy initially appealed to the anti-politics generation but those that participated now complain about its practical ineffectiveness.

Interestingly, a different approach had been adopted by activists — often from an autonomist background — in movements created in response to Spain’s extreme housing imbalances (first an extreme pre-crisis bubble preventing young people from accessing the market, then a wave of evictions as the bursting of such bubbles dragged the banks and the wider economy with them). Thousands of activists, including the (now well-known) spokeswoman Ada Colau, had developed a movement based on mass direct action against evictions and collective self-help for the working class people the government insisted had “lived beyond their means” by wanting to own their own house. Unlike 15-M, the Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca (PAH) developed a series of clear social demands: stop all evictions, fund social housing, and cancel retroactively all abusive payments evicted persons pay banks on top of losing their homes. When the 15-M movement chose to decentralise into neighbourhoods, many thousands chose to back the PAH in its struggle, and local groups multiplied across the state. Since then the PAH has stopped a thousand families from being evicted and occupied buildings (including those formally owned by nationalised “bad banks”) to rehouse another thousand. After a campaign in which the PAH worked alongside the unions and Left parties, one and a half million persons signed their support for the PAH’s housing reform initiative (which was dramatically presented in Congress turning the PAH into a household name), and the European Court of Justice has ruled in favour of judicial intervention against abusive contracts by Spanish banks.

As well as these impressive achievements, a great many working class victims of the banks have turned themselves into activists (including large numbers of migrants — making it an unusually multi-cultural movement for Spain). We can see here how the 15-M movement has helped strengthen the class struggle in its broadest sense (although this has been possible thanks to a political method which in some respects represents a break from the 15-M’s tactics). Paul Mason has observed that the 15-M influenced other movements, writing, “by mid 2012, wherever you went in Spain, you could find movements of the working class and poor that had become infused with a 5% dose of horizontalist activism”.

The infusion Mason describes has included struggles in the workplace. At the very beginning of the school term after the mass occupations, teachers in Madrid held seven strike days, which were organised through centralised and workplace assemblies in which they adopted the hand symbols popular in Indignados’ assemblies. This September and October an “assembly of teaching staff” in the Balearic Islands responded to a combination of cuts and an attack on teaching in the local Catalan dialect by pushing through a three-week strike against the wishes of the union bureaucracy. On a demonstration in Mallorca over a hundred thousand local people joined them — around an eighth of the local population! This was partly because the teachers were seen to be leading the fight to defend linguistic rights in a period of conservative re-centralisation attempts. It is powerful to see workers leading the wider struggle in such a way, and this development was clearly encouraged by 15-M. Students worked to spread the strike to the universities, and teachers in Catalonia and Valencia demonstrated in support. But the strike didn’t spread across the local public sector — despite the generalisation of cuts — and it ended with limited victories. A different outcome would probably have required having worker assemblies in other parts of the public sector spreading the struggle, and in their absence working to influence the existing union structures (however difficult that might be).

The Balearic teachers and their supporters protested wearing green t-shirts. This is not a coincidence. Across the Spanish state public sector workers and their supporters have set up coloured “Tides” to oppose particular attacks by the Tory government, including “The Green Tide” in defence of publicly funded education. The “White Tide” (wearing white t-shirts) was set up to oppose hospital cuts and privatisations. It recently scored a spectacular result in Madrid, after its strikes, protests and a mass referendum forced the courts to intervene to prevent six hospitals from being privatised. This and forcing the resignation of the regional health minister! Women fighting against the added burden on them caused by welfare cuts set up a “Violet Tide” which has mobilised tens of thousands against restrictions on abortion; and young Spaniards forced to emigrate protest their plight in a “Burgundy Tide” (after the colour of passports).

In 2012 there were two general strikes called by the major unions. The second was launched through a “Social Summit” in which the unions worked with other organisations. The summit was very limited — dominated by the more moderate and hierarchical collectives — but it did hold a demonstration in Madrid in which different coloured columns (Tides) converged — showing that the union leaders felt the need to respond to the new movements. Even more interestingly, the Summit announced that it would make its strike “European”, agreeing with the Portuguese unions to strike on the same day (14 November), and convincing unions in several other countries to join them. Without ignoring the overly conservative and passive role union leaders continue to play in the wider struggle, the holding of an European strike was an important precedent –particularly bearing in mind the part played by the EU in the collapse of the European “periphery”,. In many regards its origins can be traced back to 15 May 2011. The 15-M movement may not be what it was, but its radical spirit and strength has positively driven the struggle — not just in the Spanish state but internationally.

To effectively challenge austerity will require a social movement that breaks down sectorial and other divisions, and develops into an alternative form of power to institutional politics. It will require social struggles to be resolutely disobedient and fully democratic (by the people, for the people). The Spanish example shows that anti-politics can provide the basis for such a movement, and that rather than being an “immature” phenomenon shaped by a period of disorientation for the class, it is in many important regards its opposite: a mature challenge to the system that is free of many of the social-democratic illusions of previous movements. As I shall examine in future articles on the Indignados’ legacy, anti-politics in the Spanish state already is playing a role in pushing back ruling-class political hegemony and is even attempting to block the neoliberal hold of the institutions.

With thanks to Colin Barker, Jonas Liston and Tad Tietze for comments on this text.

Puerta Del Sol, Madrid

Discussion5 Comments

  1. […] since the 15M protests of 2011 . The series is being published on the Australian socialist blog Left Flank. He […]

  2. Interesting piece, but I feel there are two things being conflated together under “anti-politics”.

    What is the basic situation? We have the unravelling of the political system of the past formed out of social groups and increasing detachment from society.

    There are two responses. For the governing parties it means an increasing technocratic approach plus a growing fusion with the financial system, to create what I would regards as a “financial bureaucracy”. This is not the neo-liberalism idea of government being just sway to the markets, because, as we see with the massive state intervention in the markets since 2008, it is also the other way. Let’s call it a fusion.

    For the non-governing left, that was heavily reliant on the political institutions of organised labour, it has been an increasing turn to moralism and making a virtue of their social isolation.

    Then there is the second more interesting side, how society and social forces respond. I think it has barely begun, we have seen some signs, some dramatic, but I don’t think yet there has been clarity about the way forward as much as what they are against. That’s the number one issue: how that clarity is achieved. Being anti-politics is not really clarity than just stating what is. It is only a revelation to the politicos.

    I would not put Occupy in this latter category of a social movement. It typifies the response in the political sphere at the moment, that may formally be against established politics, but was a political event in almost its purest form. Their claim that they represent the 99% was a claim, nothing more. Socially they represented in any meaningful sense nothing but themselves. Pure politics. That’s why, despite all the bluster, and the surprising amount of official support they got, it went nowhere.

    • Dr_Tad says:

      [Due to a technical hitch I’m post Luke’s reply:]

      Thanks for your comment. There are some differences between Occupy and the 15-M movement (including their sizes and the depth of the local economic, social and political crises in which they emerged) but there are also similarities. Many people on the Spanish left concluded that the 15-M had “not achieved anything”, but it has revived, democratised and radicalised social struggle and encourage a growing crisis for the Spanish institutions and the emergence of a new organised left. I wouldn’t write off the impact of Occupy just yet — even tho this will likely be smaller than in the Spanish case.

      I’m quite happy to use anti-politics to say no more than “what is” or even just corroborate what movement participants are already saying. I am not interested in academic-like conceptual innovation. The problem with predicting the evolution of the indignados struggle and transformative politics since has been that other interpretations of the struggle have been applied which hinder understandings and the development of clear perspectives: for example by mistakenly reducing the movement to “autonomism” or “left reformism” or as simply a mechanical response to cuts and unemployment. How, if we respond in any of these ways, do we explain that participants in the square occupations have taken their fight into the electoral terrain (through ‘Consituent Processes’, Catalan anti-capitalist parties and a Spanish-wide “citizens’ movement” called Podemos) and doing so in an originally radical way if we don’t start from the deep breakdown of the hold of traditional politics on the majority. If we reject the “anti-politics” conceptualisation, we could start to see the movement as having made a rightwards “reformist” turn and miss the radicalness that is being invested in these new struggles. I’m honestly not clear on where I stand re. the border between the political and the social, but I do see that hundreds of thousands of Spaniards do see a clear distinction (which is why Podemos and the other projects mentioned reject being “a party”), which is to be welcomed. Applying the anti-politics idea, would seem to me, to be essential to developing the right strategies in the present period.

  3. […] my previous piece I outlined the qualitative transformations to the social struggle that occurred since the mass […]