Last Sunday, around 6pm in Madrid, around fifty thousand people marched peacefully in the streets of Madrid to demand social change. This took place in the context of austerity measures (imposed by the Leftist party in 2010), local elections (due the following Sunday) and general discontent with the traditional defense mechanisms of the political representation, the rule of law and even labor unions, who failed. Last September the Unions failed to rollback government cuts in social spending, privatization and curtailing of public services, perceived by most to be textbook implementation of neoliberal programs, that is: socialization of cost and privatization of profits.
On Saturday May the 14th, while I was at some outdoor music event here in Madrid, a young woman approached me and handed me a flyer that informed people about the march planned the following day. When Laura – that is her name – asked me why I was joining the protest, I replied that its roots in civil society, call to participatory democracy and inclusiveness made it very appealing to me. A few minutes into the conversation, and after explaining that she was one of the organizers, she told me that they actually expected up to 10,000 people to join the protest, but then added that “this is a very high expectation, if there is anything above that number, I promise to you I will be crying with joy”.
The following day, I arrived a few minutes early to meet some friends. Around 50 people at the rallying point, near the fountain of Cibeles, located less than a mile from Sol, the center of Madrid, also called “el kilómetro zero”. My expectations at that point were low…
25 minutes later, as if by magic, I would see the streets filled with people, joyous faces, mostly young people, below 30, but also many senior, immigrants, handicapped, couples and even entire families with their children. One hour after my arrival and half way through the march, I turned around and what I saw was a sea of people. Climbing on one of the fences, I tried to see the end of it, but apparently there was no empty space left between Cibeles and Sol. My estimate at that point was that there was 2-4 times more people than Laura’s lowest expectations, enough for her to keep her promise: she owed me tears of joy.
Anyone who was there during the protest would tell you that they didn’t see it coming. As a matter of fact, how can we explain this movement? Perhaps a little context is necessary for us to understand, even though one does not always find clear answers to that.
On September 29th 2010, thousands of people were asked by the main labor unions to join a protest in the streets of Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia and all the other major cities, in protest for the austerity measures anounced by the Zapatero government. However, this general strike, deemed a failure by many, left most people disenchanted with traditional politics and the general atmosphere was one of frustration, defeat and a growing sense of individualism, palpable in the streets of Madrid, and also a general mistrust, conveyed in public opinion polls regarding banks, social groups and the political class across the spectrum, as well as a pessimistic view of their future.
So, in other words, nothing at the time would make any observer anticipate what was to happen, nor its magnitude. So the question is, what happened in between? What are the main causes that could explain this phenomenon?
At this point it is still too soon to ask what the main causes of the 15M movement were. Nevertheless, the revolts in the Arab world – an inspiration for many of us – come to mind as legitimate factors in the initiative. Evidently, this doesn’t undermine the preconditions necessary for a protest of this scale, but it is worth having in mind the importance that inspiration can have in organizing.
Indeed, it is worth remembering that the revolts in the Arab world did not start in Tunisia as it is often repeated, but rather in Western Sahara, in October 2010. The crushing of a peaceful protest by the Moroccan forces sparked protests in Spain, a country that still holds a close relationship with one of its former colonies. Though it didn’t get much attention in the media at the time (this was only two months before the unrest in Tunisia began), parts of Spanish civil society began organizing around this issue, resulting in several protests around the country. Ever since that event, it is legitimate to suppose that Spain had its fingers on the pulse of the Arab world. Then, on December the 17th, a young street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi would set himself on fire…
Another source of inspiration for this protest may come from neighbouring France (also my country), where a manifesto was published in December 2010 by a former diplomat and WWII hero named Stephane Hessel. This 93-year-old man, a moral authority both in his country and abroad, wrote an essay calling for people to feel and express their outrage. His short book “Indignez-vous!” (“Be Outraged!”), a best-seller around the world, especially here in Europe, became the rallying call for most organizers wishing to build momentum and express constructive outrage towards their government policies. Here in Spain, ever since the beginning of the protests, the press often refers to them as “los indignados” (“the outraged”).
Earlier this year, a few students from the University of Madrid (Complutense), met in order to organize their fellow students around the banner of “Juventud Sin Futuro” (“Youth Without a Future”). The call was, at that point clearly limited to students and younger people. This initiative was taken without receipt of sponsorship from any political parties, labor unions and independent of any stated ideology. The result was a protest that gathered around 3,000 young people in Madrid (no national estimate available at this point) and which managed to get some attention in the press.
This honorable success would encourage them to take things to the next step by involving all parts of society, from all ages, all civil groups and discriminating only the traditional parties and unions against which the protest was organized in the first place. Even the color chosen for the graphic representation would have to be inclusive, and it was yellow.
As an illustration of this concern for inclusiveness, just 2 days ago, May 17th, the ruling party (PSOE, Center Left), tried to use this movement to its benefit by publishing it on its website, eliciting an immediate reaction from all the 15M participants, who asked the ruling party to remove it, on the basis that “they don’t represent us!”. The following day, the manisfesto could no longer be found on www.psoe.es…(see article in ‘El Mundo’ in Spanish, here).
So what does this manifesto say exactly?
The first words in the manifesto describe who the organizers are. In a spirit of inclusiveness, it seemed to have been important to them that readers understand who is speaking: “…we are regular people. We are like you: we wake up in the morning to go to school, to go to work or to go find a job…”, “…some of us are progressive, others are more conservative. Some of us are religious, some are not. Some have clearly defined ideologies, other think of ourselves as apolitical, but we are all concerned about the political, economic and social landscape around us.”
The manifesto goes on to describe its most general priorities and goals. It emphasizes , among other things: the role of the state which should be to protect its citizens, to guarantee the right to have a place to live and the right to work. The need for politicians to be the executioners of the people’s will, and doing this by instituting a more participatory democracy. The need and the urgence in changing the economic model that creates incentives for accumulation above anything else. Also, it is worth noting that in the text, there is an important paragraph that is devoted to the end of corruption. However, what is interesting is to see how, when talking about it, their definition of corruption actually extends to ‘lobbying’ activities, which is reaching outrageous proportions both here and in Brussels, the “capital” of the EU.
At last what are the proposals? It would be difficult to list all the proposals that Democracia Real Ya has established. However, the news outlet ’20 minutos’ – a commercial newspaper which has both print and online versions – has just published a very interesting poll where readers can go and vote for their favourite DRY’s proposal. Therefore I will mention the 5 most popular measures, hoping they will inspire readers of this post:
1 – Ending the immunity system that gives ‘jail free’ cards to corrupt politicians and instituting tighter control of absenteeism by political officials.
2 – Prohibiting banks from investing in tax havens and prohibiting bail-outs to banks as well as obligating them to return all bail-out money they have so far received from the government.
3 – Ensuring that public services meet the needs of the people, for example by reducing university fees, creating better and cheaper public transportation, ending reckless spending for both national and local governments and by controlling their spending more tightly.
4 – Obliging the government to conduct referendums on important questions affecting citizens’ everyday life such as the government’s control of the internet by the government and similar issues.
5 – Reducing working hours, instituting worker participation over decision making, reducing the age at which workers are eligible to retire from 67 to 65, creating incentives for corporations that hire less than 10% of temporary workers, and instituting government aid for the unemployed at 426 EUR/month (608 USD).
The future of the 15M movement is unknown, but it does seem, from the point of view of someone witnessing the phenomenon, that hope has returned in the hearts and minds of people, and that this precedent shall change the political history of Spain forever. People around Europe are already talking about emulating the ‘indignados’, and others will say that this should follow the ‘5 stars’ movement in Italy, whose roots are similar to that of the 15M. Only one thing is certain though: people want to regain control over their lives, and they want it today.