Much has been written about the indignados, what was new about them and what is, or will be, their legacy. It is time to acknowledge that the indignados have redefined how – and where! – we engage in politics.
It is now more than two years that Spanish protesters took to the streets and squares and stayed there. Days later, protesters in Greece followed suit. The protests and movements have many names, but first of all they were the indignados and aganaktismenoi. Much has been written about what was new about them and what is, or will be, their legacy: their critique of political representation and of the financial system; the assembly-method and making decisions by consensus; the use of new technologies and social networks to organise themselves; and so on.
We would like to suggest that what was new, and their legacy, is something more general, at once more diffuse and very concrete: First, they gave primacy to the political over the economic, and in doing so they made justice and equality relevant again. And second, they changed the view of what politics is.
For a long time, politics have been subsumed to economics. The crisis was framed in terms of economic logics, financial processes and institutions that seemed to escape not only the grasp of ordinary citizens but of the so-called experts themselves. It brought to the forefront the painful realization that liberal democracies and their valued institutions were nothing more than the lackeys of capitalism. Moody’s had more power than any parliament, and ordinary citizens were made into spectators to decisions that affected their lives profoundly. The movements brought to the forefront the paradox of liberal democracies and shifted the question of the survival of the economic system to the survival of democracy as such.
With this realization, new experiments of economic organization started, very timidly, to show their face. In Greece, solidarity networks sprung across the country, providing food, medicine and services, cutting out the middle men and defying profit mechanisms. In these participatory processes, the social has become political and politics the domain of community, the people.
Shifting focus to politics, the protesters rejected politics as usual and the representational system as bankrupt. The political representatives do not reflect the voice and will of the people. They have become a distant elite, cut off from the rest of the population, and parties, unions and other organisations are no longer able to channel the will of the people into political decision making. The protesters therefore rejected the traditional form of doing politics where citizens make demands to representatives, and where citizens are supposed to be passive except for voting every four years.
Not only that, but they identified the problem as the very form of the political system itself: the root of the problem lies in political representation which is bound to lead to a hierarchy between representatives and represented, those in power and those without a voice. That is, they criticised representation not only for being un-representative, but for being the problem in the first place.
In place of this, the protesters proposed a different form of politics: participatory, direct, egalitarian. And they not only proposed it, they did it. They did not simply go to the politicians with proposals, but put it in action in the squares all over Spain and Greece, and later in other countries as well.
Of course, when we say that the indignados and the aganaktismenoi changed the view of politics, this is only partially true. Large parts of the populations of Spain and Greece continued to think of politics in traditional terms. That included the politicians – both on the right and on the left – who told the protesters to go home and to voice their concerns at the ballot box. It is still like that: in May, the Spanish Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy, said that it is ‘logical and symptomatic of a healthy democracy’ when people protest’. But, he added, politics ‘is not the problem, but the solution to the current crisis’.
Clearly, when he says that politics is the solution, what he has in mind is representative politics as opposed to social protests: the latter does not qualify as politics whereas the former is politics proper. Social protest for him is a sign for professional politicians but not the site where politics is made. No doubt Rajoy is expressing a widespread view, especially on the Right. Still, we think that it is safe to say that, for many people, and especially on the Left, the protests in 2011 were a real eye-opener about what politics can also be like.
This is the big question that the indignados and the aganaktismenoi put forth: Where does politics take place? And the answer came from the movements themselves. They had the tenacity to argue that what went on in the squares was, normatively speaking, much more important than what went on in parliament and government. The protesters took politics out of the formal political institutions and into the Spanish and Greek squares.
In taking to the squares, the protesters also took (over) the squares. They made the squares into public places where citizens discussed the public interest (‘the common’, as it is sometimes referred to). Doing so they rejected a view of the square as a public place where subjects act as private citizens: shopping, strolling and enjoying the nice weather, etc. Politics is then no longer restricted to a particular institution or place. It can be exercised everywhere, whenever citizens come together as citizens and debate the public interest.
In Spain, we have witnessed a further development of this with the so-called escraches. One of the things that grew out of the Spanish indignados movement was a movement to protest the evictions of people who could not pay the mortgages on their homes. This movement organised itself in the same way as the initial indignados protests: horizontally, through social networks, and so on, and it refers to itself as a ‘platform’ (Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca – PAH). The protesters would show up outside the homes of people threatened by eviction, thereby trying to prevent the authorities from kicking people out of their homes.
At some point protesters started turning up outside the homes of politicians who did not want to change the current law and judges who did not side with those threatened by eviction. This is what an escrache is. The idea of escraches comes from Argentina where it was used to protest against those oppressors of the former military rule who were let off the hook by the legal and political system. The idea is simple: if you cannot get justice through the legal or political system, you can at least let neighbours know that a criminal lives here.
The escraches have been heavily criticised by the government, the main line of criticism being that homes are homes, and homes are private. If you want to make a political statement, you should do so through the political system, not in front of people’s private homes. Thus, the critique of the escraches rests on a distinction between public and private. Politics takes place in the public sphere (in formal institutions, etc.), and the private sphere should be protected from politics.
Again we see how the protesters challenge the traditional view of where politics belongs. What used to be private is no longer off limits for political protest. The argument is simple: if people are being evicted from their homes because of a crisis created by the political and economic elites, we should think about home and home ownership as a political issue. If ordinary people are no longer free to live in their homes, the home can no longer be conceived as an oasis of private freedom. And so the plush homes of politicians – and, in Spain as well as in Greece, a politician usually owns more than one home – are no longer off limits to political protest.
The legacy of the indignados and aganaktismenoi is thus twofold: they have connected the economic crisis to a crisis of democracy and politics, and they have challenged the received view of politics and its place within society. To be sure, for this to have a lasting effect, one should not speak of a legacy as if the struggle had been won or lost. Rather, that struggle must continue in ever new places and forms.