Can Europe Make It?

Spain’s political laboratory – from 15-M to Podemos: an interview

From the Spanish left’s response to financial crisis against austerity, to Black Lives Matter and reclaiming the nation ‘for the people’, Natalie Fenton talks to Cristina Flesher Fominaya about her book, 'Democracy Reloaded'.

Cristina Flesher Fominaya Natalie Fenton
25 January 2021, 12.32pm
Irene Montero, Minister of Equality of Spain, speaks to the press before a meeting, Madrid, Spain, 24/08/2020.
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Juan Carlos Rojas/PA. All rights reserved.

Natalie Fenton (NF): What did your extensive study of the 15-M movement in Spain tell us about how we reclaim concepts such as democracy in systems where it is so often corrupted and hollowed out of meaning? What has happened to the radical democratic agendas that traditionally served dissident struggles?

Cristina Flesher Fominaya (CFF): Right now, we are witnessing a real struggle for democracy. If 10 years ago the struggle in 15-M and some of the movements of the squares was for “real” substantive democracy that lived up to the ideals classically associated with it and served the needs of citizens, today the fight is on for its very survival in contexts we previously took for granted as “democratic” such as the United States of America. So, I think it is actually a great time to go back and reflect on this movement that so powerfully shifted the public conversation about democracy in Spain and around the world, that built a powerful and sustained movement, and that transformed the political landscape in profound and unexpected ways.

As I describe in the book, what 15-M did was to engage in a powerful process of critique and resignification of democracy. The movement first engaged in a profound critique of really existing democracy in the context of a “crisis” that activists argued was actually a swindle, whereby the public bore the cost of the failures of private financial interests with the active complicity of political elites.

The second key thing that happened was a process I have called the “democratic turn”, which is a direct re-engagement with democratic institutions and representatives in order to reclaim them to serve citizens rather than elites. There are some wonderful examples of this in the book, such as the case study on 15MpaRato. The third component of this was to connect democracy in the abstract to the material needs and lived experience of citizens, constantly highlighting the fact that really existing democracy was serving the interests of capital, but that real democracy needs to serve the interests of life (people, the environment, etc.).

One of the key distinctions I make in the book is between a procedural understanding of democracy and a substantive one. What 15-M showed is that when we divorce democracy from substance, we end up with a very impoverished understanding of it, and one that enabled the global financial crash and the ensuing austerity politics to shape the lives of millions of people for the worse. As the activist I quote in the opening of Chapter 1 put it “If 15-M did one thing, it was to challenge once and for all the idea that democracy means alternating power between two parties every four years. [...]15- M finished with that idea once and for all, democracy has to mean so much more than that”.

“If 15-M did one thing, it was to challenge once and for all the idea that democracy means alternating power between two parties every four years.”

NF: What can we learn from your experience of 15-M as a social movement and the development of Podemos as a political party about how progressive movements can tackle a deep-rooted market logic that shifts the contours of public debate towards the normalization of illiberalism and authoritarianism and marginalizes progressive perspectives?

CFF: Following the global financial crash, one of the most striking differences between the response to elite narratives about the inevitability of austerity and the bank bailouts with public money in Spain and other similarly affected countries, like Ireland, was that in Spain activists immediately began to contest that narrative with a robust critique that managed to take hold in the public narrative fairly quickly. That was only possible because of pre-existing networks of social movement groups, critical media activists, and a whole network of artists, intellectuals, and concerned and active people who had already been actively mobilizing against the excesses of neoliberal capitalism and authoritarianism and mobilizing for progressive agendas. So they were ready and able to be activated in the face of this new devastating scenario, and they began to widely circulate a shared master frame of contestation across multiple nodes of the network. It was quite remarkable really how consistent the central claims of contestation were, and how certain slogans like “It’s not a crisis, it’s a swindle” took hold.

“It’s not a crisis, it’s a swindle”

As to Podemos, as I rather provocatively argue in the book, it forms part of the pre-history of 15-M in the sense that the work some of its founders were doing in the lead up to 15-M was really influential in laying the discursive terrain for it, through the online TV programs they emitted which relentlessly challenged austerity narratives and reached millions of people. Their critique was brilliant and accessible. Their programs connected to myriad struggles and initiatives and showed people that they were not alone and that things were happening on the ground in a context of real suffering and anxiety for so many, even if the politicians were not offering any change or solutions beyond austerity.

NF: Your book unfolds how political imaginaries are relational and bound up in the matrices of lived existence that are social as well as structural, that determine what is, what fails, and what might be. You say that you have “shown how the ideational frameworks that underlie 15-M political culture profoundly informed the way (re)new(ed) democratic imaginaries are transmitted to the public…that shifted the public narrative about democracy…and provoked an institutional crisis that affected political parties and governing practices” (p.307). This is a bold claim. Yet you also say that “if we measured 15-M success in terms of its ability to change the political agenda…we would conclude the movement had failed” (p.309). Can you explain this apparent dissonance between these two statements a little more?

CFF: What I am trying to get to here is that the power of movements is far too often measured in terms of short-term policy changes, rather than on the much more profound changes in consciousness, and other outcomes that successful movements can effect. In the short term the established political parties, both the PSOE and the PP, were remarkably impermeable to the critiques made by 15-M. They did not budge on key demands around austerity, or government or financial reform. So, if we were to simply measure the impact of the movement based on that, we would conclude it had failed and miss what it actually achieved.

We need to consider the outcomes of movements in a much broader and more nuanced way, recognizing the impacts on public debate, consciousness, culture, biographical trajectories, social capital, and also on unintended consequences such as an increase in repression or a hardening of laws or restrictions of democratic freedoms, which also happened in Spain with the “Gag Law”. Only then can we capture the power of movements and their myriad impacts.

NF: Your analysis focuses on three core ideational frameworks of 15-M – its autonomy, feminism and hacker ethics and technopolitical imaginaries – that you argue contributed to transforming the wider political landscape in Spain both politically and symbolically. Identifying types of impact for social movements is notoriously difficult (and often futile) but it can help to inspire people looking to understand how change can happen. Can you outline the evidence for your claim and any lasting legacies we can point to now?

CFF: I detail this in the book, showing how these three strands of political thought and practice synergistically formed what we can call “15mayismo” or 15-M-ism, a political culture that shaped a generation of activism. The evidence for this is everywhere in progressive Spanish politics, with parties like Podemos continually making reference to 15-M 10 years later, but also in the legitimacy of 15-M style practices in social movement communities and groups. Asamblearismo or ‘assembly-based movement organizing’ has long been established in progressive autonomous movements in Spain, but became much more widespread, seeping into neighbourhood associations and NGOs who previously might have organized in a more hierarchical way.

Hacker ethics have inspired activist media practices, and continue to do so. They introduced a whole way of conceiving of communication strategies that are linked to progressive autonomous and critical media agendas.

Of the three strands though, the one that had the hardest start was feminism as I discuss in the book. Despite this, it has ended up being the most obvious and widespread of the three, visible in particular in institutional politics, but also in the sustained mass mobilization of feminists over the past 10 years. What the feminists in 15-M have achieved has been remarkable and is often overlooked in accounts of the movement. 15-M directly led to the municipal movements for change, and two of the mayors that were elected from those processes, Ada Colau in Barcelona and Manuela Carmena in Madrid, who went on to govern Spain’s two largest cities with an explicitly feminist agenda from day one. That has been hugely important. Podemos now holds the Ministry of Equality with an explicitly feminist progressive agenda. None of that would have been possible without 15-M.

15-M directly led to the municipal movements for change.

NF: A feminist ethics was key to the way 15-M was sustained and developed but this did not seem to translate into the formation of Podemos who have been heavily criticised for being male dominated. Why did a feminist ethics become so central to the movement and – if not with Podemos – where did a feminist ethics make its mark most emphatically?

CFF: Podemos too has undergone a remarkable transformation in this regard although there is still a way to go. As I show in the book, at its conception, feminism was a minor and almost overlooked element of the original manifesto. In fact the word doesn’t even appear, although some traditional feminist concerns do, such as freedom of control over one’s body, sexual orientation and a commitment to fight gender-based violence.

But in the evolution of the party, thanks to the work of feminists in the movement, it became an increasingly central concern of the party and is now consolidated as a key component. The disjuncture between political agendas and internal political practices is an issue for most progressive parties, and Podemos is no exception. But it has made great strides in terms of female leadership and a feminist agenda since its inception, again thanks to the work of feminists in the party. As I said above, feminist ethics has made its mark in the municipal movements very clearly, and also in movement spaces. When I asked activists who have been involved in autonomous movements in Madrid for several decades what the biggest change has been thanks to 15-M, the influence of feminism has definitely been one of them.

NF: Although you state that many participants in the movement subscribe to an anti-racist ideology, the lack of a race critical politics at the heart of the movement is startling, particularly in the light of the Black Lives Matter Protests across the globe in response to racialised inequalities everywhere. Why do you think this was and what have the consequences been for the movement?

CFF: That is a hard question to answer. I wouldn’t say there is no race critical politics in the movement. Groups like SOS Racismo, the Oficinas de Derechos Sociales, and platforms like No Somos Delito (who work on the Gag Law) have long been concerned with migrant issues and the fight against racism, and have been active throughout the movement. The PAH (the platform for those affected by mortgages) also has had the strong involvement of immigrant activists. The squatted social centres in Madrid, for example, actively build links with immigrant communities who participate in social center activities. But it is true that in general progressive movements in Spain are not very ethnically diverse. They are not very socio-economically or educationally diverse either as a rule, although this does vary by groups and movement issues.

Black Lives Matter is born in a context where some 13% of the population are African American, where there is a strong history of civil rights movements, where the African-American community is politically liberal/progressive, where there are many influential Black intellectuals, university professors, departments where people learn critical race theory, a rich tradition of cultural and artistic production that treats race centrally and critically, and where powerful and visible examples of violence against black lives are a recurrent part of the social reality. The context in Spain is very different. Although there is a long history of racism and xenophobia in Spanish society and institutions, there are significant differences as well. Afro-Spaniards make up about 2% of the population and don’t have similar representation or political clout, and mass immigration is a relatively recent phenomenon. So I am not sure that BLM or the US context is the best lens through which to evaluate a lack of diversity or engagement with critical race theory in Spanish progressive movements. As movements like BLM continue to have influence around the world, it is very likely that critical race politics will also have a greater impact, but those processes take time. Obviously, the more movements can integrate critical consciousness in their ideas and practices the more they will be able to advance a progressive agenda.

NF: What does your ethnography of digital practices tell us about how a hacker ethics and technopolitics can work in an information and technology landscape dominated by the largest media and technology oligopolies capitalism has ever seen and where the digital divide is still a reality for so many (as the pandemic has made so alarmingly clear)? In other words, what is the digital imaginary of 15-M, beyond a hacker ethic?

CFF: 15-M has a strong technopolitical strand, and proponents are committed to tapping into the power of digital to create a more vibrant and robust democracy. Part of that is about being critical and savvy about the use of media technologies and fostering replicability; part of it is about things like actively working to close the digital divides that still leave out so many people; part of it is about cyberpolitics proper, by which I mean things like fighting to keep the digital sphere open, effective whistleblowing to uncover corruption, monitory democracy to increase transparency and accountability, etc. ; and part of it is about developing an alternative autonomous critical media infrastructure.

This last has been particularly important in Spain, where 15-M has prompted the resurgence and renewal of critical media, and where new independent media projects like eldiario.es have managed to occupy a significant share of news consumption, or projects like Maldito Bulo are working to combat information disorders. Information and media are absolutely crucial to democracy, and this is definitely the most important terrain on which the fight for democracy is being waged.

The extreme right has been incredibly successful in waging information warfare. Media landscapes dominated by oligopolies are tremendously worrying as your work has shown, and progressive politics and especially established parties are really struggling to keep up. We need to look to successful and savvy digital democracy activists for solutions. Spain offers some good examples, but so do places like Taiwan where technopolitics via communities like gov0 (gov zero) have really had a huge influence, and we can see the positive effects in many ways but most recently in how they have managed to combat information disorders during the pandemic.

Information and media are absolutely crucial to democracy, and this is definitely the most important terrain on which the fight for democracy is being waged.

NF: Many left wing progressive movements struggle with a focus on the nation state and nationhood, fearing the promotion of xenophobia and racist discourses. As you state, Podemos are actively reclaiming the nation, yet Catalonia is struggling for self-governance. In your view and based on your research, which political configuration will best enable democracy to be reloaded and which will render it more likely to fail again?

CFF: I am not sure the “container” or configuration is what is most relevant here.

What matters is getting people to believe in, participate in and support a progressive political agenda that serves the interests of the people. One curious phenomenon that we can see in Catalonia and Scotland is people supporting independence movements not out of a strong nationalist identification, but out of a belief that only through independence will they be able to advance a more progressive political agenda (whether that is actually the case I cannot say).

In the UK we see this really starkly now with Brexit. Scotland did not want to leave the EU, and the mobilization of a xenophobic English nationalism played a huge part in making that happen. In Catalonia (and indeed in the Basque Country and Galicia), regional independence parties are by no means necessarily progressive. This is a common misconception among people outside Spain who for some bizarre reason seem to think independence movements are progressive. There are some very neoliberal and conservative independence parties.

The issue you raise about reclaiming the nation state is a really important and interesting one. Podemos definitely set out explicitly to reclaim the nation “for the people”. This did not sit well with some leftists who understandably associated this with the risk of promoting xenophobia and right-wing nationalism. But it is another case of a deliberate strategy of critique and resignification, of trying to reset the parameters of the debate and discussion around democracy.

The logic was: Why should we leave the nation in the hands of the right? Why not reclaim it, as an inclusive, pluralist and robust social welfare state, for the people? It was about re-occupying political terrain that had been ceded to the right for a long time. In the context of Spain’s very complex regional and national politics, it is a tricky path to follow to be sure.

I think the case of Spain and other countries around the world show that cities are becoming very promising sites for progressive agendas, and in the case of large urban areas they represent huge economies in their own right. I think cities will increasingly displace the nation in our scholarship and imaginaries. But I don’t think we are witnessing the end of the relevance of the nation state just yet.

OUP COVER FLESHER FOMINAYA.jpg
Democracy Reloaded cover.

See also Grace Blakeley interviews Cristina Flesher Fominaya on 'Democracy Reloaded'.

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