In May last year, Spanish people – young and old, well-off and less well-off – took to the streets to protest and started camping in the squares. Suddenly there was a new political subject – a new ‘we’. They gave themselves different names: the people, ordinary people, the outraged, etc. At the centre of their discourse was a claim to equality: to be heard as equals, to be counted as equals. A new division characterized Spanish politics: not left/right, but the people vs. the elites. The latter were first of all the politicians and the bankers. The people were everybody else: not this or that group, but everybody.
Two slogans captured the essence of this. One was: ¡No Nos Representan! – “They Don’t Represent Us!” The political elites no longer spoke for ordinary people – and the latter were reclaiming their voice. The other slogan was ¡no somos mercancía en manos de políticos y banqueros! – “we are not goods for sale by politicians and bankers!” The citizens were no longer mere voters and passive subjects to be managed by the political elite. They would no longer take their assigned passive role, but wanted a real say over their lives and the future of Spain. They demanded more direct democracy and more participation.
The protesters also made demands to the political system: about jobs and pensions, as well as protests against the austerity cuts. This is what ordinary politics is about: citizens make demands to the state and the political representatives, and these demands must conform to a certain style in order to be heard.
But the indignados movement was about more than ordinary politics. The protesters precisely disrupted the traditional image of politics as the political management of demands where the language of politics is prescribed in advance. The protesters presented us with a different form of politics – politics proper. Before the 2011 protests people thought politics consisted of politicians making policies and citizens selecting their representatives among the political elites every fourth year. Citizens were passive; political elites were active.
The indignados burst onto the political stage with their claim to be counted as equal voices. In fact, they changed the political stage by not simply storming the stage but rather turning their back on it and creating their own political community, with new norms about who counts as an equal voice. The political stage was no longer the formal political institutions, but also the squares across the country. There were new actors on the stage, and a new language too. You no longer had to wear a suit and be authorized to speak by a political party, and the language of politics was no longer one of platitudes delivered with an air of self-importance. You could just turn up and speak, which is what thousands of protesters did for several months.
That kind of politics is now dead. By the time of the campaign leading up to the general elections on 22 November, Spanish politics had shifted back to its traditional form and lines of division. It is now about cuts and austerity measures, pensions, taxes, jobs, and so on. Spanish politics today is a struggle among the usual suspects of politicians, parties, unions, and so on. The rest of the population is reduced to passive spectators. There is one exception: demonstrations against the cuts. Yet those demonstrations take an already recognized form: people demand free health care, jobs, etc., and the demands are directed at politicians. The roles are the same as before.
The point here is not that these traditional demands are ‘economic’ as opposed to ‘political’. The demands of the indignados movement also had economic implications – for instance, the democratization of the finance sector. The point is that the indignados were political proper because they changed the perception of what kind of voices were to be taken seriously. They created a new political subject – the people, ordinary people, the outraged, etc. – and this is what made them political. Politics restructured. What we have now is politics as usual: subjects with already given identities and interests, and representatives whose authority is already established.
We’re not suggesting that the Spanish people should not protest against the cuts, on the contrary. But more radical change only comes about by changing the very language of protest. How might this come about again? We’ll give two examples.
First, take the government’s proposal to cut health care for illegal residents (sin papeles). These are people who have been doing those jobs that no Spanish person would do and for salaries that no Spanish person would accept. They are not going to protest themselves, but others could protest for them – not by claiming to represent them, but by showing solidarity. That solidarity could be shown through a claim to equality: we are all in this together, not as particular interest groups, but as persons with a stake in the future of the country.
Our second example is the re-occupation of the squares. No doubt the new right wing government would be much less tolerant of the protesters in the squares, and much of protests would be about the right to be in the squares. That may take away attention from other concerns, but it would highlight the issues concerning what we called the staging of politics above: where the political stage is, who is authorized to speak on it, and what can be said.
There is no guarantee that any of this would work to resurrect politics from the dead. Politics proper is difficult because it involves a restructuring of what we imagine politics to be about, and how we see ourselves as citizens.