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The Spanish protests and the need for politics and conflict

The popular uprising of Spanish youth has been inspiring to observe, but its call for radical democracy should not be confused with a "post-political" approach to social change
Guy Aitchison
23 May 2011

This article is part of our thread on the Spanish protests, their global significance, and responses and reaction from within the UK. It follows pieces from the DSG blog and searchforthemastercopy.


The popular uprising of Spanish youth has been inspiring to behold. I witnessed some of the anger and determination first-hand on Saturday when I visited the 500 or so protesting outside the Spanish embassy in Belgrave Square in London.

The demonstrators in Madrid and other cities have declared their determination to continue the occupations of public squares and spaces for another week following Sunday’s local and regional elections, which saw heavy defeats for the ruling Socialist party.  As others have noted, the occupation of public space in itself isn’t sufficient to challenge the centres of economic and political power. But the “indignados”, as they have become known, have the potential to galvanize a broader movement of resistance to neoliberalism across Spain and Europe. The protesters have been criticised by politicians and media commentators for lacking a detailed set of demands, but this is understandable in a young movement originating as a spontaneous response to injustice and striving to work democratically.  More concerning is the common refrain that the movement is “post-democratic”, “not political” and even beyond “left or right”.

The Manifesto released by Real Democracy Now says that the protesters are a mixture of “progressives” and “conservatives”, some with “clearly defined ideologies” and others “apolitical”. Remaining inclusive and pluralist is important of course, but the notion of a post-political movement is deeply troubling. It appears to have become part of the narrative surrounding the indignados. Perhaps it is a rhetorical tactic, intended to broaden the appeal of the movement and make it appear palatable and non-threatening to the media. This is an approach many social activists, including groups and organisations fighting the cuts in the UK, have been tempted to adopt. It is fundamentally misguided. A politics of emancipation is, and always will be, about the formation of collective identities around points of conflict and antagonism. There is nothing unseemly about this. Failure to realise it reinforces a diluted, centrist politics trapped by the demobilising logic of the lowest common denominator.

Naturally, the idea that we live in a post-political age, in which earlier political orientations and conflicts are irrelevant, suits the powers that be quite nicely. Indeed, a central dynamic of neoliberalism is the removal of ever more spheres of social life from political control. Public services are privatised, whilst economic policy decisions are handed to technocratic bodies insulated from popular pressures. In the writings of Austrian economist F.A Hayek, and those of his followers on the New Right in the 1970s and 80s, the elimination of political disagreement and conflict is fundamental since it permits the substitution of democracy for the market.  With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the “End of History”, social democratic parties in Europe and the US gave up on providing an alternative to neoliberalism seeking merely to moderate its excesses.

This shift rightwards was given credibility by fashionable currents in contemporary academia which encouraged the idea that the fundamental questions of how to organise human affairs have been answered with the function of political institutions to peacefully manage disagreement over how to divide up the spoils of neoliberal capitalist growth. In the globalized world of new individualism, says sociologist Anthony Giddens, a formative influence on New Labour and theorist of the “Third Way” (alongside his one-time intellectual sparring partner, Colonel Gaddafi), left and right divisions disappear and politics becomes “dialogic” aiming at a “democracy of the emotions”.

This idea of a win-win, post-ideological politics sanctions the depoliticization of social life. Powers are transferred to courts to enforce an individualist regime of private property rights, and monetary policy handed to central banks. At the international level, opaque and unaccountable bodies are empowered to set the rules that govern the flow of capital between and within countries. A central aim of any emancipatory social movement should be to expose the idea of a “post-political” age beyond “left and right” for what it is: an ideological ploy by elites to legitimate huge imbalances of wealth and power and systematically marginalise alternatives to the prevailing economic system.  It should demand the radical democratisation of these supposedly post-political institutions or else their immediate abolition.

The Manifesto of the indignados provides a stinging critique of the collusion of politicians with a financial system that treats people as “the gears of a machine” that enrich a “tiny minority”. It asserts the right of Spanish citizens to determine the fundamental questions of where power lies and how resources are distributed. Much of their anger is directed at the two main political parties, and their entrenched duopoly, whilst emphasising they are non-partisan. This anger stems from a rejection of the neoliberal policies common to both parties and a demand for greater openness, democracy and participation. These are both irreducibly political claims. To dress them up as anything different only serves elites who choose to dismiss any rejection of parties and representative democracy as “anti-political”. The left and right polarity, meanwhile, is a key orientation around which a number of political oppositions – between mass and elite, progressive and traditional, inclusion and exclusion – are organised. It allows us to make sense of and organise political claims. We should be careful not to jettison it.

Although inconsistent in parts, and falling short of the radical promise of “revolution”, the agenda of the Spanish demonstrators is an improvement on some the feeble statements which surrounded the most recent mass mobilisation against austerity in the UK. The demonstration called by the TUC on March 26th brought hundreds of thousands of people from all walks of life onto the streets. Large numbers, on this scale, will be needed of course but this needn’t imply a watered down strategy and aims.  The accompanying PR operation by the TUC seemed intended, as the Escalate Collective put it, “to convince us that opposition to the cuts does not entail opposition to the groups who benefit from their implementation”. In their pastel-coloured propaganda, the constitutive role of antagonism was airbrushed over by a bland call for "jobs, growth and justice". The two “C” words – class and capitalism – were nowhere to be seen.

Organising outside the established channels of opinion, through online networks and people’s assemblies, the “indignados” have a far more robust politics and critique, which reflects the urgency of their concerns. But they should avoid the pitfall of seeing themselves as post-political or beyond left and right and instead seek to reactivate these categories and orientations. Currently, the governing institutions of neoliberalism at whose behest the Spanish government is acting – the IMF, the World Bank, the EU, credit rating agencies – deny that what they’re doing is about politics and power, hiding behind the facade of “rational” and “scientific” economic rules, which dictate the necessity of the measures being enacted. If they have their way, then in Spain, the UK, and across Europe, the expropriation of public wealth by the banks will be “the new normal”.  

The only hope of stopping this is through popular movements of resistance and defiance formed, both nationally and internationally, around collective identities based around common points of antagonism. A two-fold process of politicization is involved here. Occupations, protests, strikes are a form of self-politicisation for those joining up with others in a common struggle. But their ultimate aim is to politicise and call into question the social relationships and institutions naturalised by neoliberal capitalism. This is the first step to real democracy.      

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