The retreat of national politics in the face of the imperatives of the global financial markets is returning politics to the streets.
During the Spanish transition to democracy following the death of General Franco in 1975, an elderly anarchist explained to me that their mistake in the 1930s lay in trying to provide things like schools, libraries and health services themselves: the point of political struggle now he said, is not to do everything ourselves but to pressure the state to provide these things in the way we want them. But the current financial woes of the central Spanish state and of the regional governments, which have been responsible for providing these welfare services, may be forcing many citizens to return to the self-sufficiency ideas of the earlier anarchist tradition.
On May 15 2011, demonstrations occurred across Spain organised entirely over the internet by DRY (Democracia Real Ya – Real Democracy Now) in protest against the economic crisis. The arrest of 24 demonstrators at the end of the march in Madrid led to a spontaneous sit-down on the evening of the May 15 in Madrid’s main square, the Plaza del Sol. On Monday, Facebook, twitter and other social media called for a mass sit-down that same evening which then became a more permanent camp. This was the start of the 15-M – los indignados movement – although it had roots in other movements such as VdeVivienda which began in 2006 in support of the right to affordable housing, Precarios en movimiento, a loose network of groups struggling against the lack of certainty (precariedad) in employment, housing, pensions, health and education and Juventud Sin Futuro (Youth without a Future) which coalesced in Madrid’s universities in April 2011 around the slogan ‘no house, no job, no pension, no fear’.
The level of self-organisation during the occupation of the Plaza del Sol would have made my elderly anarchist proud. People gathered to hear the assembly opinions and news and decisions were made by majority. Everyone had the right to speak and to vote but not to veto. Donated food and water were dispensed free every day. No alcohol was consumed and the movement’s ‘Respect Commission’ ensured that there were no disorderly or violent incidents.
Since those early heady days, the 15-M movement has abandoned the square but it continues through a mix of demonstrations, other protest activities and the sporadic occupation of public squares across Spain. Those who attend the weekly assemblies in the Plaza de Sol now number in their hundreds rather than their thousands, but the 15-M movement continues to work at the level of the neighbourhood and with other collectives to address contemporary problems. The San Blas assembly in Madrid, for example, has created a ‘Time Bank’ called the Sinergías Cooperativa San Blas which allows neighbours to exchange services amongst themselves without money; the Concepción neighbourhood in Madrid organises an exchange market every Sunday while a debtors’ cooperative in Catalunya (Cooperativas de Autofinanciación Social en Red) brings together debtors to respond collectively to creditors. All of these cooperatives are the result of initiatives from the 15-M neighbourhood assemblies. Other indignados continue working with other movements such as the Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca (Platform for those affected by mortgages – PAH) to stop people being evicted from their homes while others are involved in forming new movements to help people who can no longer pay their increasingly expensive rents or to help people in precarious employment situations. Los indignados also continue to have a strong virtual presence under the main portal of www.madrid.tomalaplaza.net.
Although young people were the protagonists of the 15-M demonstrations and subsequent movement, many older people from 50 upwards joined the Sol occupation not the least because those with children want their offspring to have a better future. Intergenerational solidarity is also strong through the work of los indignados in related movements such as the PAH. Moreover, opinion polls suggest broad social support for the movement because it reflects the concerns of ordinary people. A poll conducted for the BBC World Service on economic fairness, showed that while in 2009 66% in Spain felt that economic benefits and burdens had not been fairly shared, by 2012 this figure had increased dramatically to 92% (Globescan, 2012). In a Metroscopia poll in October 2011, 73% of Spaniards consulted considered that los indignados are right. Amongst Socialist voters, this figure was 79% although it was a high 55% even amongst right-wing PP voters. Although only 20% of those consulted had participated in a protest organised by the 15-M and only 8% had participated in one of its assemblies, 63% still felt the movement should continue (El País, 2011). The same poll revealed the reason why many in Spain, and not only the ‘lost generation’ of youth remain indignant: 81% of Spaniards consulted believe that it is markets not states who really wield power. The retreat of national politics in the face of the imperatives of the global financial markets is returning politics to the streets.