“If you don’t let us dream, we won’t let you sleep”: Spanish people say enough is enough and take to the streets.
May 27, 2011 2 Comments
“It is not surprising that citizens have been seeing how Spanish democracy has become an alternation of two political parties, perceived as offering similar political programmes with no real alternatives to the economic crisis.”
Last week saw the birth of a movement that has electrified Spanish social and political life. The 15M movement or “the movement for a real democracy” now emerges as the galvanising protest of a significant part of Spanish society (especially its youth) which has witnessed how shrinking standards of life – soaring unemployment and housing prices, precarious jobs and low-frozen wages, an alarming lack of job opportunities and bleak prospects for self-realisation in life – have found no response from an increasingly oligarchic and bi-partisan political system. This is certainly one of the biggest problems of Spanish democracy now and one that has undoubtedly sparked the taking of the streets these days. Since the advent of democracy after Franco’s death, Spain has been governed by the UCD (Unión de Centro Democrático, a centre-right party) first, and later by the PSOE, which 12 year rule ended in 1996 with the victory of the PP (the Spanish conservative party). The defeat of the PP after the Madrid terrorist attacks sent the PSOE back to power. It is not surprising that citizens have been seeing how Spanish democracy has become an alternation of two political parties (PP and PSOE) perceived as offering similar political programmes with no real alternatives to the economic crisis. The roots of discontent must be found in a/ the “neoliberalisation” of the PSOE, who has unashamedly embraced the economic measures imposed by the IMF (privatisation, cuts in health and social services and the shrinking of worker’s rights, among others) and b/ the bipolarisation of political life due to an unfair electoral system. The Spanish electoral system is based on the D’hondt law, a mathematical formula that, in general terms, ensures that both PP and PSOE obtain more representatives than actual votes. In this way, a significant part of the voting population sees how their preference has been deformed by a more than questionable distribution system. On the other hand, the economic policies of the PSOE have lost a large part of its social scope since the 90’s: the adoption of a strong neoliberal approach to Spanish economy (by the alternating governments of PSOE and the PP) has been disastrous for the socialist party, which is not seen any more as governing for the interests of Spanish citizens. One of the consequences of this neoliberal approach led to the massive bubble in the construction sector under the government of Jose Maria Aznar, whose explosion had dramatic consequences for the government of Zapatero.
“Citizens refuse to allow banks and international financial institutions to gamble with their hopes and dreams. This outburst of collective consciousness no doubt mirrors the revolts sweeping the Arab world”
Against this critical economic situation and finding no receptiveness to their claims on behalf of the ruling party (the PSOE), young people, retirees and unemployed citizens participated in a massive protest on May 15th, organised via social networks, whose aim was to express their anger and profound dissatisfaction with a political system seen as playing the game of financial institutions. In the age of internet and information technologies, it is simply ludicrous to pretend citizens will believe official propaganda that presents as necessary measures the massive cuts in health system and in other areas of the welfare state. Protesters know very well that the crisis was caused by the very same capitalist systems that economic measures attempt to save. Citizens refuse to allow banks and international financial institutions to gamble with their hopes and dreams. This outburst of collective consciousness no doubt mirrors the revolts sweeping the Arab world and the example given by Icelandic citizens (who voted against paying for the bank’s gambling) for inspiration.
One of the most interesting aspects of this growing movement is its desire for a radical change in the way democracy is performed in Spain. All of the elements I have mentioned before galvanised a call for participatory democracy that brings back a greater sense of people’s involvement in the running of local and national political affairs. In this sense, the movement demands resemble those made under the banner of participatory democracy. In this sense, it is interesting to see how decisions taken in the assemblies organised across Spain are being put together in manifestos and taken to local or neighbour’s councils. Despite the victory of the PP in the local elections, the social networks emerging from the assemblies in Madrid, Barcelona and elsewhere seem to be recalling people of the need to take the streets and coordinate collective strategies of empowerment. This is the most important lesson to be learnt from these protests: whatever form they take, citizens take with them the realisation that they are not individuals passing alone in the dark night of economic crisis; that the energy of collective action is strong enough to mobilise passion into action; that beyond individual or local demands, there is a collective sense of injustice that needs to be channelled into precise and coordinated strategies of action aimed at reverting economic measures that affect the welfare state.
“It is not difficult to imagine the helplessness and desperation of people for whom the benefits of the so called “forces of the market” translate into corruption, unemployment and injustice”
I suspect the more than likely victory of the PP in the next general elections will only add fuel to the fire: nobody expects the PP economic policies to differ greatly from those that have led PSOE into collapse. That is why I believe it is necessary to consider the 15M movement as a long term process rather than a particular set of protests and, in this sense, it is good to remember the case of other countries who are in the process of overcoming both the disruptive interventions of the IMF and oligarchic political systems. Despite the obvious economic and socio-cultural differences, it is striking to see that countries like Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia, for instance, have seen their political system dominated by small elites with a friendly hand towards the impositions of the IMF. In the 80’s, the effects of these economic measures in South America were as disastrous as they can be in Spain if local governments persist in their implementation against the interests of the people to whom these governments are ultimately answerable. We’re talking privatisation of public services leading to massive levels of social inequality and poverty, the weakening and disarming of trade unions, the opening up of domestic markets to foreign intervention…)
The case of Venezuela is worth mentioning at this point. After 40 years of “bipartidismo” (which is the government of two alternating political parties, Acción Democrática (AD) and COPEI, established by means of the “Pacto de Punto Fijo” in 1958) the communist party of Venezuela (PCV) was systematically excluded from elections, and the oligarchy of the two-party system did not resolve the profound social inequalities. Likewise, the imposition in 1989 of IMF-led measures that increased the price of petrol and liberalised prices led to great social instability and widespread protests that led to the massacre of almost 1000 people. It is in this context that, after a failed coup d’état, Hugo Chavez was elected as President of Venezuela in 1998, initiating a radical political change in the country that contemplated the creation of a socialist republic without the yoke of the IMF or the World Bank. I am not suggesting that Spain should follow the same path as both countries, as I have said before, are profoundly different in social, economic and cultural terms. However, the pattern of events in Venezuela and the form of participatory democracy that characterises the government of Hugo Chavez invites us, at least, to consider the current political and economic situation of Spain from a wider perspective. Also, the cases of “bipartidismo” in Venezuela and Spain show that democratic inclusiveness was sacrificed for the sake of political stability, which is usually the most desired environment for economic investment by national and multinational corporations. In this sense, it will be interesting to see how new networks of cooperation emerge between Spanish and South American networks: the projects of participatory democracy developed across Venezuela might certainly be inspirational to the incipient 15M movement although it is difficult at present to discern the precise direction the Spanish movement will take. However, the transnational dimension of the Spanish protests makes the creation of networks of dialogue and interaction inevitable.
It is not difficult to imagine the helplessness and desperation of people for whom the benefits of the so called “forces of the market” translate into corruption, unemployment and injustice; that is why the Spanish, Arab and South American versions of their own revolutionary projects need to reinforce each other in as many ways as possible against the government of corrupt financial institutions who have not been elected and therefore, lack the legitimacy to decide the fate of nations and their citizens. Whilst respect for economic and socio-cultural difference needs to be strengthened and supported, the articulation and reinforcement of new and pre-existing transnational networks of resistance is absolutely crucial. In other words, difference needs to be respected but commonalities sought and reinforced because as David Slater suggests in his book Geopolitics and the Post-colonial: Rethinking North-South Relations, “globalisation from below can help expand the ethic of participatory democracy to a variety of spatial levels, not just the global but the supra-national, regional, local and community levels”. And, finally, this is why it is so refreshing to see how the seeds for new and inclusive forms of democracy are being planted in so many places across the world.
 David Slater, Geopolitics and the Post-colonial: Rethinking North-South Relations, Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2004.
Antonio Cuadrado-Fernandez is independent researcher who obtained his PhD in postcolonial literature in the School of Literature and Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia, where he has taught literary theory, Ecopoetry and Catalan language. His research focuses on the relationship between art and biodiversity, cultural politics, philosophy of mind and cultural/human geography but also loves progressive rock, growing vegetables and all kinds of coffee. He is also a freelance translator, Spanish and Catalan Tutor and enjoys volunteering for the U3A group teaching Spanish to elderly people in Norwich.