Spain’s Challenge to Austerity

Though the anti-austerity protests in Greece have grabbed most of the international attention, a similar movement rejecting neo-liberal economics and challenging the traditional political elites has emerged in the much larger nation of Spain, as Danny Schechter observed during a recent visit.

 By Danny Schechter

June 18, 2011

Spain is justly proud of the Paella, a distinctive dish that mixes diverse vegetables or seafood into a tasty fusion of delectability.

They have now created a political version in the form of Tahrir Square-type encampment in Madrid’s Puerta del Sol where a diverse mix of activists old, young, male, female, disabled, immigrant (including activists from Western Sahara) have created a beachhead for what many say is the closest this country has come to a popular and distinctive revolutionary movement since the 1930s.

It’s been a month now since Real Democracy Now!, a grassroots “platform,” began a march that initially attracted only a relative handful of activists. However, by the time it reached the shopping district at Puerta del Sol, it had swelled to over 25,000, surprising its organizers, participants and politicians from the two major parties.

This march turned into a movement when many of its supporters decided to stay in the square, no doubt inspired by events in Egypt.

In Cairo, the vast multitudes agreed on one demand, Mubarak Must Go, though its causes, like those in Spain, were later traced to a collapsing economy and mass joblessness among the young. In both countries, the protests also were driven by social media and then spread to other cities.

In Spain, the movement became known as “#spanishrevolution” after the Twitter hash-tag used to spread news, pictures and footage of the revolt. The marchers were dubbed “indignados” (The Indignant.)

Activist/writer Pablo Ouziel articulated the feeling, “Amidst local and regional election campaigns, with the banners of the different political parties plastered across the country’s streets, people are saying `enough!’

“Disillusioned youth, unemployed, pensioners, students, Immigrants and other disenfranchised groups have emulated their brothers in the Arab world and are now demanding a voice – demanding an opportunity to live with dignity.”

In Spain, the activists said they were expressing “indignation” with their country’s economy and the parasitic nature of its two main political parties, the Socialists (PSOE) and the Center Right People’s Party (PP), which carried on business as usual in a predictable dance of mutual bashing and few new ideas while markets melted down.

They also denounced corruption demanding fair housing, jobs, and a more responsive government.

But they had moved beyond electoral politics creating a liberated village with tents and makeshift structures. They had no leaders and didn’t want any. They practiced a form of consensus, backed by small d democratic decision-making.

It reminded me of what I read of utopian communities in which “the people” run the show. Soon, the spirit of what they are doing and asking for resonated in more than 160 cities and towns.

I got to Madrid a month after this May 15th movement started and almost by accident.

On my way to South Africa, I flew the Spanish carrier Iberia only to discover I would have a 12-hour layover. Since I was going through Madrid, my revolutionary tourism gene mandated me to hop on the marvelous Madrid Metro, and three changes later surface face to face with the revolution even if the weather seemed well over 90 degrees.

Yes, there was plenty of sol on hand. Some of the activists, like Liam who hails from Ireland, were slathered with suntan lotion because of the afternoon rays. “We are all fried,” he told me.

Although many in the media have already written this movement’s obituary, it seems to keep chugging along, almost amoeba-like, decentralizing, going deeper by organizing popular assemblies in neighborhoods throughout the city. They have several committees working on a program for what they will fight for. Many are common-sense ideas.

While Puerta del Sol still functions as their public base, the protesters already have deemphasized its importance by spreading out, almost block by block.

On the day I was there, a small contingent left the square to stop an eviction and was successful in confronting a landlord and the local bank.

The “indignatos” exercise an enormous amount of moral authority as they talk about issues in personal ways, free of political rhetoric and bombast. They politicize by example, not by throwing slogans around. They act in a post-partisan manner.

This approach seems to make sense to many who see their society in crisis with politicians blaming each other. In contrast, the May 15th movement encourages citizens to voice their grievances and act on their own behalf.

The “indignados” tend to think like anarchists and talk in terms of self-management, seeing it as a principle of political economy.

They are very clear about not wanting to replace one conventional hierarchal party with another. They are nervous about grooming or projecting leaders even as one activist told me that rule by consensus can be excruciatingly slow and subject to obstructionist tactics by a few who can hold the majority hostage.

“We have had people praise us for standing up,” Liam told me, “We tell them not to put their faith in us either but to get involved in the process of change. We can’t do it for them.”

Much of the Spanish press seems ready to pronounce the movement a failure even as the country’s economy continues in free-fall. But one newspaper, called Diagonal, reports on the movement’s every activity. Activists also use social media and blogs.

When a local newspaper sampled public opinion, it found many voters estranged from their traditional political parties and sympathetic to the idealism and energy of the protests. The movement’s very presence seems to be politicizing people by starting a discussion of political alternatives.

Many Spaniards were open to the new movement’s style and interactive discourse. Bernarda said, “democracy is really bad here. There are two parties but no one really likes either one.” 

Juan said, “I think it’s very interesting that people from different social classes and different groups are joining together.”

Cesar agreed, “Everyone’s hoping this will not disappear because it is the spark of change.”

Juan added, “I am really proud of all of us.”

My language skills limited my access to Spanish speakers, but I did talk with David Marty, a lawyer by training, a teacher by necessity and a writer by choice. He sees the movement spreading all across Europe.

“We need a new approach, he says, singing the praises of May 15th bottom-up, participatory approach.

What I found significant is that he was not a man of the Left. Both his father and grandfather were policemen. His dad won his spurs as a member of the French CRS unity fighting protesters during May-June 1968 when Paris was a battleground.

Now, his son writes for Z Magazine and contributes ideas for what changes the protest movement should seek.

Like many in M-15, he is a staunch critic of neo-liberalism, policies that both major parties embrace

As we sat in the Square as its distinctive clock tower, struck six, I Iistened to more speculation laced with hope. No one can predict this movement’s future with any certainty, but its active core seems to agree that it has already done more than they ever imagined.

Writes Ouziel, “Spain is finally re-embracing its radical past, its popular movements, its anarcho-syndicalist traditions and its republican dreams. Crushed by Generalissimo Francisco Franco 70 years ago, it seemed that Spanish popular culture would never recover from the void left by a right-wing dictatorship, which exterminated anyone with a dissenting voice; but the 15th of May is the reminder to those in power that Spanish direct democracy is still alive and has finally awakened.”

That is the hope at least, that I saw in the Plaza of the Sun.

Danny Schechter blogs for Comments to [email protected]