Saturday June 25, 2011
On May 15th, thousands of people answered a call to “take the streets” against neoliberal economic measures that were being implemented in Spain in the aftermath of the financial crisis. To everyone’s surprise, including organizers and participants[i], 125,000 people “took the streets” filling popular city squares across Spain. In a matter of days, the “indignant” – as they came to be known – went from making a point to making a camp, and from running the camp to working towards a revolution.
Four weeks later, on June 19th, a second march gathered over 250,000 people, once again exceeding all expectations and, more importantly, doubling the attendance of the first action. An impressive figure, indeed. However, by that time, 15-M was no longer just the date of a protest, but also the name of a very organized movement with immediate demands as well as long-term political ambitions. The movement now has its own institutions, its own proposals and its own history. It even has its own newspaper, its own artwork and even a 4-sign language. This is a movement that frightens a select few because it creates hope for many.
Retrospective: It’s always the quiet ones…
On the eve of the 2008 financial crisis, the economy of Spain still appeared strong: GDP had been growing at a steady 4%, consumption was high and real estate prices seemed to reach for the sky. But this would turn out to be merely an illusion. There was a rising inequality between rich and poor, unemployment was already abnormally high and consumption was only facilitated by irresponsible levels of debt. Nevertheless, both growth and the financial health of the Treasury guaranteed a decent level of social protection from the government in the most European way.
During the fourth quarter of 2008, like in the three little Pigs story, the big bad wolf of the US subprime crisis “huffed and puffed” …and blew the Spanish housing bubble down. Ironically, Spanish financial institutions did not hold substantial amounts of toxic American assets, but their roofs were indeed made of straws and the Spanish economy collapsed at the end of 2008. Unemployment soared to 20% nationally, with the youngest citizens hardest hit at over 45% unemployment. Over one-fifth of Spaniards were suddenly living below the poverty line (around $11,250 for a single person).
From that moment on, the social provisions built up under the welfare state were no longer sacred. Politicians from both sides presented social spending as a burden that aggravated the poor economic situation. The public lost trust in the major labor unions, traditional defenders of basic social protections, and saw them as weak, indulgent government collaborators. Corporations were now gifted the privilege of firing workers by the thousands with reduced compensation packages, partly paid with taxpayers money. In the middle of the social and economic devastation of an entire generation, one might expect there to have been a strong, maybe violent, reaction. But no such thing took place.
In fact, on May 1st – a day still celebrated here as Labor Day, unlike in the US – the protests went rather unnoticed and failed to arouse any enthusiasm among the population. For the bigwigs in charge, this was the long-awaited sign: everyone was just sitting down and taking it! The coast was clear and they could now do as they please. An entire body of captured regulators could gear up for the final act of a sinister play. They had won and we had not even tried.
The atmosphere was one of impunity for the powerful and resignation for the rest. Corruption scandals multiplied and of course the only public figure relieved ofhis duties was Baltasar Garzón, the judge that prosecuted the corruption cases[ii]. This and many other murky affairs left many disenchanted and resentful toward politicians, labor unions and even human nature. Cynicism would work as a rational defense mechanism. Our T-shirts read “People suck”. All of this was taking place while others – a minority of super-rich investors – celebrated their victory discretely and safely in their garrisoned bunkers located miles away from the rabble.
At that time, even on the eve of May 15th, this perception, however grim, would have been hard to challenge, at least without looking a fool.
“¡Toma la Calle!”
After the disappointment of Labor Day, students from the Univeristy Complutense of Madrid, who had gained some success organizing a number of protests earlier in the year, saw an opportunity to send a call. The platform was simple and was explicitly independent from politial parties and labor unions. They called themselves “simple citizens, from all stripes,” and emphasized in their manifesto that “some of us are progressive, some are conservative.” It was calling for reforms that were meant to put the general public interest back on the program and make positive outcomes for humans the measure of a successful policy. A key aim was to remind the political class that it “was those who created the mess that ought to pay for it”. The name of their platform was “Democracia Real Ya” (“Real Democracy Now”).
The students’ call was an explicit rejection of both political parties, the right wing PP and the center left PSOE. The message hit a nerve. All of a sudden, thousands of Spaniards filled the streets of Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia, Sevilla, Bilbao, and dozens of other cities and towns. There was literally no sign that this would ever happen. It felt like waking up. By the end of the march, cynicism was officially dead.
From a personal point of view, this was by far the most empowering experience of my life. I learnt that people can muster solidarity and conviction. People don’t “suck” after all.
“¡Toma la Plaza!”
After 24 protesters were arrested for staying at the Puerta del Sol – the center square of Madrid – after the march, hundreds of people decided to stay to demand that all the charges against the protesters be dropped. To facilitate their stay they set up a space with tents and improvised shelters. Very quickly, neighbors from all over the area joined efforts to bring food and material to consolidate the shelters. On May 17, only two days later, people began stopping by after work to express their solidarity with the occupiers of the plaza who became known as “the indignant.”
I remember my first impression when I arrived at the camp on the following Wednesday. There were people immersed in deep conversations all around me andthe social diversity on display was incredible: immigrants speaking with older people, feminists with family guys and their children, homeless people, high school students, unemployed workers, conservatives, and a Finnish tourist and me. The overwhelming feeling that has stayed with me to this day is that everyone dropped their attitude of mistrust toward one another. We all began our conversation presupposing that the other one was a decent person.
By the third day of the camp, there was consistently between 5,000 and 20,000 people gathered in the central square of Madrid. The image of a massive crowd of protesters even made the cover of the Washington Post. The camp organization had to ask people to stop bringing food; there was more food than we could possibly eat. The camp was growing by the hour. Now, the idea that we were so many and they were so few was gaining momentum. The media would keep asking “What do they want?” which is to say, like in that Lonnie Atkinson song, “we know what you are against, but what are you for?” It was partly out of concernaround this question that the first camp assemblies were created.
A #spanishrevolution is born
The #spanishrevolution was the hottest topic of the moment. The hash tag quickly ranked number one on Twitter and all the television networks of the world were desperately trying to look for some representative of the movement.
A typical conversation with the media would usually go like this:
Reporter: “Who is your leader?”
Answer: “There is no leader. This is a horizontal organization”
Reporter: “What about that guy with the moustache. The one from Democracia Real Ya[iii]?”
Answer: “We are not DRY, we are the people. We are here only because we are indignant. Why is it so hard for you to understand?”
Reporter: “Ok, I don’t understand…”
Indeed, DRY was no longer in charge. Whilst this caused an initial lack of coherent proposals it also enabled people to self-organize. By the end of the first week, the Puerta del Sol camp quickly became its own little village and a laboratory for a self-managed society. The idea of people collectively making decisions together quickly lost its utopic stigma and gained credibility because it was happening right in front of everybody. People could see for themselves, and join in if they wanted to.
The camp was self-managed by committees that followed a division of labor that evolved according to the size of the camp. At first there were four committees. When the Sol camp was taken down on June 12, there were around 15 committees. It was very well organized even providing campers and visitors access to movies at the 15-M cinema where several documentaries were projected.
First Encounter with the Encampment
I remember visiting the camp for the first time. My first reaction was to look for a receptionist or an information desk where I could ask all the basic questions or even get a map of the whole place. Silly me! I needed to stop thinking in such preconceived terms. After all, I was not at some train station or the national museum. So I decided I would ask the first person available. There were lines everywhere and I had to wait patiently for my turn. The volunteer worker standing behind the improvised desk then told me everything I needed to know about the camp. How professional of him! It was exciting, I was looking forward to see the canteen, the day-nursery and the library. I was told that kids could play games and that they had collected up to 4,000 books. When the young volunteer finished giving me directions, he suggested I should go to the information desk, where they would give me a map and everything I would need. Silly me…
This anecdotal account of my first visit is in fact quite revealing of the working ethics of the whole movement. Just because these men and women were volunteers did not mean that they were not there to get work done. At the Puerta del Sol in Madrid – which is the camp that I know best – there was a vibrant, lively atmosphere and a good spirit among volunteers. Nonetheless, an impressive amount of work was being done at an incredible pace. The result was quite spectacular.
The committees were kind of the executive branch of the movement. Their work has dealt with both camp affairs and the movement as a whole. For that reason, some of the committees that I describe here still exist today. There were up to 15, but I shall mention only 12: legal, infirmary, infrastructure, respect, cleaning, library, arts, day-nursery, archives, communication, extensions and information.
The legal committee was established at the very beginning and it undoubtedly is the key to the success of the encampment. Its task is (as it still exists) to handle or prevent any dispute or conflicts with the authorities, the police and all the people affected by the camp. Ten to twenty thousand people meeting every night must have been an imposition for some of the neighbors and shop owners. This committee has been very successful in establishing a dialogue with all those parties. Its influence would range from preventing people from climbing on the scaffolds during the assemblies to trying to get the people who had been arrestedout of prison. In my opinion a legal committee is essential to any similar building a movement of this sort. It anticipates tense situations before they become costly and shows concern for those affected by our actions, giving a moral force to means as well as ends.
The infirmary is another committee whose work is still very visible during the assemblies. This service was provided – for the most part – by one volunteer doctor and a dozen of other professionals, as well as by other volunteers who helped lift and carry patients when it was necessary. It is important to understand that one assembly meeting at Sol could have up to 5,000 participants all at once. The infirmary committee requested corridors to be left open for participants to enter and exit more easily. However, this meant that people during the assembly had to sit or stand in a packed crowd with temperatures getting dangerously close to summer heights. At the time it was not uncommon to have some people feeling dizzy and faint in the middle of the assembly. Effective medical care would then depend upon volunteers acting quickly to take the person away. As a witness of such situations I can say that assemblies were never interrupted for more than 2-5 minutes when such incidents took place and again their professionalism was striking.
Members of the infrastructures committee were constantly working, mostly in the background, and this group required the most volunteers. The camp needed constant extensions, repairs, transport of material, electrical wiring, an effective sound system, and so on. As the camp grew bigger, certain facilities would be too small or too weak. Each day we saw new pieces that improved our daily assemblies, working groups and other activities. The members of this committeewere mostly electricians, carpenters, architects, do-it-yourself types and many volunteers with no particular experience at all.
The committee for respect was, like the legal department, one of crucial importance. It consisted of volunteers wearing reflective vests that identified them as members of the respect committee. Their task was to ask people to refrain from excessive drinking, mostly during nights on the weekends. They also made sure that no one would block the entrance of the shops around the square nor would they allow paintings on the iron gates. In a way its work consisted ofinstilling a sense of individual as well as collective responsiblity among all the campers.
Cleaning: its work was to clean up the plaza 24/7 by taking care of the garbage left by the thousands of people passing by. Even though its work has been effective, it needs to be admitted that such tasks have technical limitations that must be acknowledged. After three or four weeks of camping out, it becomes increasingly difficult to address some real hygiene problems that usually require bigger and more sophisticated cleaning equipment like the ones used by the city’s maintenance staff.
Library: this has been a committee that has received much attention, although not so much for the actual service it provided. The library started out with a couple of hundred donations from supporters of the movement. By June 12th, the last day, it counted more than 4,000 books which are now stored somewhere in Madrid. The participants seem to have realized very early that the camp had come to be the embodiment of a self-managed society. Knowing this, the library was as much a public space as it was the symbol of a civilized and rational society. Evidently, this was not the type of library where one would go and borrow books in the traditional way. But the library, like the arts committee, helped give the whole movement and encampment a soul. By developing its own art and its own cultural context, the 15-M became more than just the sum of its individuals, it became a collective endeavor and an invitation for rethinking our institutions.
Archives and documentation – although not the most flashy nor appealing committee of all – has accomplished a task that is essential. Thanks to the collection and production of paperwork, it has been made possible to offer maps to new arrivals to the camp, a crucial tool for becoming oriented with the multitude of activities and stations located in situ. This committee also made it possible for journalists and others to obtain copies of important documents such as the minutes of the assemblies and the proposals produced by the working groups.
The communication committee was by far the most visited. It hosted all the web designers – internet has been essential in getting the message out – the translators and the spokespersons. According to the people working in this committee, whom I have met on several occasions, all the important messages, communications, reports, minutes and other information that came out of the many activities of the 15-M were translated into English, French, German, Arabic, Italian, Portuguese and probably some other languages that I am leaving out. Messages on the loudspeakers were read in the first three languages besides Spanish.
Finally, the extensions committee helped project the 15-M movement into the future. Its work has consisted of helping to coordinate the neighborhood assemblies that were created during the second week of the occupation. Its task on the Puerta del Sol was to inform the public about their own assembly, depending on what city or district they lived in. They have also encouraged the development of web pages for each neighborhood committee. I can now go to thewebsite of Lavapiés, the neighborhood where I live, and check what was discussed during the last session while I was out of the city. It also informs me of many other important details, activities and initiatives that are independent from the general assembly.
“What Do We Want?”
Preceding questions of what we were going to try to achieve and propose, was the question of how we were going to make decisions. It is one thing to self-manage a camp that gets its food, water, material and labor from outside and then create the impression that we have achieved utopia. Such a camp may be able to foster an environment of solidarity conducive to forming new social dynamics but remains reliant on existing economic processes. It is quite another thingaltogether to put ourselves to work on viable alternatives to the mess we find ourselves in. What exactly is a “horizontal” decision making process? How farahead do we wish to think about our proposals? Should we seek to include more people at the expense of our own group’s vision? Should we start with short-term proposals first and postpone more extensive ones? Are we anti-capitalists? What does that mean anyway? Are we against something more than we are for something? Should we be educating or do we want to find consensus?
There is, as you can see, no shortage of questions and, believe me, all of the above mentioned did arise at some point. In spite of the desire to address all of these questions and more, not all of them found a clear answer and the 15-M movement is still very much a work in progress. However, some responses have been provided, mainly through the proposals made by the working groups adopted at the assemblies.
Typically, assemblies take place on the weekends: Saturdays are for local assemblies and Sundays are for the general one. It usually takes around two hours to get through the agenda. Following discussions (during which everyone has the opportunity to speak) proposals and decisions are put to a vote. As I mentioned earlier, the sign language that we’ve adopted is essential for the session to move smoothly forward.
The general assemblies are always held in public spaces, usually symbolic places in the center of the city: Puerta del Sol in Madrid, Plaza Cataluña in Barcelona, Plaza de Encarnación in Sevilla, etc., all reminiscent of the Agoras from ancient Greek city-states. The fact that those squares are public has not been obvious to all observers. The traumatic experience of police repression in Barcelona on June 27th illustrates this. As a matter of fact, public spaces are only public insofar as we actually use them. Our rights as citizens cannot be weighted against commercial considerations or a “bad image” for tourism. Neglecting that right leads authorities to treat it as touristic “capital” and to undermine our collective property right. Participatory democracy begins with reclaiming that space and our right.
Assembly sessions require the help of a number of volunteer workers: moderators, minute recorders (on paper and on tape), people giving turns to speak, medical care teams on stand-by during big assembly sessions, sound technicians, etc. These are jobs that are always carefully monitored (except for medical care, of course) and subject to turn over, the risk being that some individuals monopolize certain empowering tasks, breaking the horizontality of the movement.
The decision making process is an issue that is still in progress as we speak. Up until the third week of the encampment, the rule was decision making by consensus. However, when the assembly decided to vote on the withdrawal from the Puerta del Sol, a small minority of individuals who were present at every meeting managed to block vote after vote. This was the first real challenge of the movement that came from the inside, threatening the credibility of the movement. It was only once it was decided to lower that consensus rule that we were able to proceed. This ‘deadlock’ type of situations are in fact more common than we might think, which is why it is important to approach these experiences with an open mind and certain flexibility.
Neighborhood assemblies are a replica of the general assemblies, although they may, if they wish to do so in the future, adopt their own rules and mechanisms for decision making. Indeed, decentralization is absolute and the only obligation for the barrios is to send 2-5 spokespersons to report on what has been decided. The number of spokespersons is voluntarily high so that fraud is not given any opportunity. The fact that the barrios are completely decentralized allows participants in smaller assemblies to be creative and to experiment. Ideas deemed successful could be reported and suggested to other assemblies from other districts or cities. Indeed, the communication is so decentralized that each assembly is, in fact, free to exchange views and ideas with other assemblies without consulting the general assembly, be it Madrid, San Sebastian, Girona or Athens.
What the assemblies have already accomplished, besides proposals that have been published, is that they have brought a participatory democracy to life. It isn’t enough to approve the movement from a distance. Being a participant and getting involved is the type of experience that does not make you want to go back to the old way of doing things.
There are of course plenty of problems to address and hurdles to remove, but the process of improving it is, in and of itself, exciting and very empowering. However, we must not forget that the 15-M movement is still very young. When I was four weeks old I am not sure my eyes were even open yet. The indignant, on the other hand, not only seem to have their eyes wide open, but they are also very organized and are now taking the “barrios” (neighborhoods) of Madrid, as well as many other cities in Spain. In the words of Hördur Torfason, the activist who initiated the recent popular revolt in Iceland, when visiting Madrid: “I am amazed how organized they are”[iv].
Inclusiveness is a very important aspect of the movement that has not always been easy to achieve.
As far as the assemblies are concerned there are several points worth mentioning: speeches are translated into the sign language by one or two interpreters. People are asked to be gender inclusive when speaking, which is more difficult to abide in Spanish than it is for non-latin languages (due to a bigger presence of gender accordance in grammar rules). Gender representation is also a prime concern, although so far it has been respected without any need for intervention. Women easily make up half the participants of the movement. Swear words are not tolerated, especially the sexist, racist and homophobic ones.
Another problem with inclusiveness came when long-term visions were to be produced by the working groups: can we say that we are anti-capitalist? Are we scaring some people off? Will we lose support if we do that? Is it even legitimate to do that? After all, if the movement has the ambition to one day represent every Spanish citizen in the country, shouldn’t we postpone those questions for when we shall be more representative?
There were many, including myself, who were reluctant to set a long term vision at this stage of the movement. It is not that vision is unimportant, of course not, but my belief is that assemblies need to be institutionalized, meaning made durable, before we can start speaking of changing capitalism. Our success must not blind us into thinking that the support we enjoy is unconditional. In fact, I would even suggest that words such as “anti-capitalist” act like scarecrows for some of the most conservative supporters of the movement. My view is that once assemblies become a permanent and periodical forum of discussion and decision making, becoming part of our institutional landscape, then people will naturally choose what is best for themselves. The need for a vision must not dominate over all other considerations.
The Working Groups
Working groups elaborate the proposals that will be voted during the assemblies. They are subdivided, in some cases, in sub-groups. For instance, the working group on economy consists of 7 subgroups: ‘financial systems’, ‘housing’ ’employment’, ‘political economy’, ‘relation with developing countries’, ‘Businesses’ and ‘international economic relations’. During these sessions, discussions go deeper into issues. There are a total of 10 different working groups: Economy, politics, architecture and public spaces, social and migration, science and technology, feminism, healthcare, environment, education and the last one is called ‘thinking’.
Now, each working group is now releasing a little book of proposals with a detailed list of the proposals that have been approved by consensus. Unfortunately, as of now, it is not possible to review those proposals.
What Spanish People Think of the 15-M
There is always some legitimacy even in the worst slander: when the 15-M started gaining momentum during its first week of existence, the right-wing newspapers here in Spain (El Mundo, La Razón and La Gaceta) were quick to notice that it only represented a small percentage of the entire population in Spain: 125,000 vs 47 million. The other claim, repeated ad nauseum, was that Spaniards felt that the indignant did not have any arguments to present. Fair enough…
On week three Metroscopia, a Spanish firm specialized in public opinion polls, published its results on the movement. The figures turned out to reveal an overwhelming support from civil society for the 15-M[v].
While 70% of spaniards said they didn’t feel their interests were being represented by any political party, 81% said that the indignant were right and 84% felt that the movement was dealing with issues that affect the majority of people.
The support that the indignant have aroused is astonishing if one compares it to the level of cynicism – perhaps not quantifiable but verifiable nonetheless, before the first demonstration took place. It is even more so when looking at the support across the political spectrum. Not surprisingly, 78% of the PSOE voters (the left-wing party). However, up to 46% of the PP voters had “sympathies” for the movement.
And to be sure, there were spaniards who believed that the indignant did not have any arguments to present: 9%.
Proposals to reform our Economy
The economy group has just published a little book of about 30 pages. It describes their proposals, a total of 20 proposals that each subgroup has worked on and that the assembly for economy working group has agreed upon. Its purpose is to inform each one of us of the proposals so that when the day will come for us to go to the general assembly and vote for it, we may know what it is about.
Now, 30 pages may seem a lot. However, I must explain the book is made in three parts: the first part is a short introduction that gives general information, essential for us to know what the procedure is. Then there are 4 pages that are a list of all the proposals. They are very self-explanatory and they have a small description below that gives enough details to know what is meant. The third part is actually the bulk of the book. There are roughly 20 pages that state all the arguments from each subgroup giving all the reasons behind each proposal.
Here is the list of the proposals from the working groups (these await to be ratified by the general assembly):
1 – Establishment of a new framework for labor relations that would be agreed upon by consensus.
2 – Reduction of working hours as well as reduction of the age for retirement.
3 – Increase of the cross-sector minimum wage.
4 — Granting of aid to families for families in situation of imminent foreclosure.
5 – Creation of state subsidized apartment by using the already existing stock of empty homes.
6 – Ban on Workforce Adjustment Plans for companies that make profits (these are government authorized plans that allow companies to end the employment of a large portion of their workforce but with lower benefits than in the case of ‘unlawful dismissals’).
7 – Increase in tax revenue by increasing progressive taxes and prosecuting transnational corporations’ tax fraud more effectively.
8 – Submit future bail-out plans to a binding referendum.
9 – Immediate freeze of the privatization process of the saving banks and strengthening of a public financial system under social control
10 – Democratic control and transparency of both public and private banking activities
11 – Establishment of more democratic control over fiscal and monetary policies at the EU level.
12 – Abolition of tax havens.
13 – Reestablishment of a public bank so as to ensure increased political control over economic processes, mostly in the cases .
14 – Leveling of the rights of workers independently of their working status (in Spain independent workers are being discriminated with regard to their rights and obligations with taxes and social security).
15 – Implementation of a social balance for businesses (it is a procedure that measures a business’ success according to its impact on workers, stakeholders and citizens).
16 – Moratorium on the debt of developing countries with Spain by independent third parties in order to identify cases of iniquitous debts being imposed on developing countries.
17 – Moratorium on Spain’s external debt by independent third parties in order to review the legitimacy of the debt and the conditions under which it is being repaid.
18 – Observance by transnational corporations of human rights and laws of other countries as well as criminal laws of Spain.
19 – Establishment of a global progressive tax that would redistribute wealth to all.
20 – Compliance with the historical commitment to donate 0,7% of GDP to development assistance.
[i] See my “Spain: Thousands of People Organize a Historical 7-day Protest,” ZNet, May 20, 2011, http://www.zcommunications.org/spain-thousands-of-people-organize-a-historical-7-day-protest-by-david-marty,.
[ii] “Spanish Judge Baltasar Garzón on Holding Torturers Accountable, Why He Opposes the Killing of Osama bin Laden, and His Threatened Ouster from the Bench,” Democracy Now!, May 12, 2011, http://www.democracynow.org/2011/5/12/spanish_judge_baltasar_garzn_on_bin
[iii] Democracia Real Ya is the name of the organization that first organized the protest on May 15th. They are different from the 15-M movement that is embodied in the assemblies, even though they are solidary with one another and they collaborate on different actions.
[iv] “Estoy alucinado de lo organizados que están los indignados españoles” (Video of the interview in English), El País, June 22nd, 2011,http://politica.elpais.com/politica/2011/06/22/actualidad/1308768044_418504.html
[v] “Apoyo a la indignación del 15-M”, El País, June 5th, 2011, http://www.elpais.com/articulo/espana/Apoyo/indignacion/15-M/elpepiesp/20110605elpepinac_12/Tes