Rearticulating the movement post-15M in Spain


by Jordi Bonet Marti - read on openDemocracy

On September 15 in Madrid, over one hundred thousand people answered the unions’ call to demand a referendum on austerity. In both its aims and its format, this action confirmed that the trade unions have been influenced by the 15M movement.

On September 25, 2012 thousands of people convened through social networking gathered in front of the Spanish Congress building to express their opposition to the austerity measures undertaken by the conservative government.

In the weeks prior to that, members of government, some media and representatives of the ruling Partido Popular had been accusing the organizers of preparing something akin to a coup d’état, thereby inducing fear in Spanish citizens and looking to weaken the mobilisation. In the end, while the demonstration was peaceful, it ended in brutal police charges widely reported by the international press that angered the opposition parties. This action-reaction dynamic led to a new call for action on September 29, when tens of thousands of people gathered again in front of Congress to protest against police brutality and demand the resignation of the government.

The Spanish political situation increasingly resembles that of Portugal – people take to the streets in opposition to the adjustment policies imposed by the bail-out, formal democracy is in a deep crisis of legitimacy and progressive political forces are unable to build a real alternative to austerity. Regarding the latter, while the Socialist Party (PSOE) in opposition moves between the institutional commitment to governance (and the call for a united government) and the hope that social protests erode electoral support for the ruling party, United Left (IU) supports the mobilization in order to obtain future electoral gains. Therefore, no political force seems able to channel the demands of an increasingly angry and frustrated people.

Changes in the cycle of protest

There are only two main bodies who have issued calls to take to the streets: the unions and the popular movement that emerged on May 15 of last year, the ‘15M’. Until the 15M movement made its appearance in Spring 2011, the unions had played a rather discreet role in the protests against austerity. Since January 2012, however, there has been a clear escalation in labour disputes – a general strike on March 29 against labour reform, strikes in public services (education, health and transport), the miners’ conflict which ignited the Asturian coalfield over the summer (now picking up again) and, most significantly, a massive mobilization on September 15 in Madrid, called by the unions and attended by more than 100,000 people demanding a referendum on austerity.

Both the content (the call for an improvement in democratic processes) and the format of the event (with the rank-and-file overtaking the leadership in numbers and militancy) suggest that the union movement has been strongly impregnated by the agendas and demands of the 15M movement, even if this convergence has not yet been translated into the formation of a renewed, more diverse leadership or a more profound sharing of networks.

As for the 15M, it entered a period of ‘latency’ after the successful protest of October 15 (‘15O’) when the decision was taken to focus on activism at the neighbourhood level, which has rendered it less visible than the union-led protests. In this period, there have been discussions, articulated mainly through social networks, on the limits of mobilization and protest and the need to kick-start a constitutional process that can lead to the transformation of the Spanish political and economic system in its entirety. The call to ‘occupy’ Congress on September 25, with which this piece began, arose from this debate. Despite much hesitation in the local assemblies on whether to support it, due to the diverse nature of those who called it, its success has managed to put the 15M back onto the political agenda.

Changes in the political cycle

The political situation in Spain has changed dramatically since May 2011, when the 15M movement first emerged. It was then that the ruling Socialist party was forced by the EU institutions to lay aside its reform agenda and instead react paternalistically to the outbreak of square occupations called by the 15M movement. Then, on November 20, the conservative PP won the general elections and imposed an austerity programme centred on public-service privatisation, administrative re-centralisation and the criminalisation of protest. This situation is creating a growing polarization of Spanish society, which results in this increase in social protest on the one hand, but also in the emergence of alternative ways to overcome the crisis – such as the push for independence of the Catalan region.

The Catalan way

The 25S protest had little echo in the Catalan political debate, which has been revolving around the possibility of self-determination since September 11, when one and a half million people took to the streets of Barcelona to demand independence from Spain. While the demand for greater self-government has been present in Catalan politics since the end of the dictatorship thirty five years ago, it had never before been so clearly and radically spelled out. There are many factors that contribute to explaining this surge in Catalan ‘independentism’ – the existence of a distinct Catalan identity and language, the crisis of the Spanish regional model, the inadequacy of the system used to calculate how much money is transferred to the regions to fulfil their responsibilities, the fear of a recentralisation drive led by the PP, the widespread anxiety caused by the economic situation, recent corruption scandals and the political usefulness to the Catalan conservative ruling party of a discourse centred on the national question and not on the economic crisis. The demand for independence, however, is not confined to supporters of the ruling party, which, we could argue, has had to adapt itself to the radicalism of the streets –‘independentism’ is a movement that cuts across the spectrum, permeating all sectors of the Catalan population, and finding support both to the Left and the Right.

This sudden shift in the political discourse (from the crisis to the nationalist debate) prompted by the massive mobilisation of September 11 has caught most social movements off-guard. Many are reluctant to support the demand for independence as they feel that focusing the debate on issues of identity is helping the ruling party to draw a veil over its many failures in the management of the crisis and is obscuring the debate on social issues and the demand to put an end to austerity.

The end of consensus

Despite their differences, both the 15M movement and the Catalan independence movement share their willingness to challenge the ‘transitional consensus’ that has defined Spanish politics since 1977. For thirty five years, all ruling parties have abided by the rules set down in the Spanish Constitution during the transition from Francoism to democracy – that is, the acceptance of the king as head of state, the territorial organization of the state on the basis of autonomous regions and the centrality of political parties as guarantors of democratic stability. This institutional architecture is now being called into question by new generations of citizens who feel they are being forced to accept a consensus they were never part of. It leads us to a second element both movements hold in common – the demand for greater democracy and the call for referendums on both territorial and social issues.

Europe, an open question

While both the struggle against austerity and for independence are issues of national import, their resolution necessarily involves a redefinition of the European democratic sphere. At the social and economic level, Europe needs to move towards greater fiscal and social integration if it wants to be a project shared by all EU members.

At the territorial level, Europe should not see the Catalan question as an internal Spanish problem. The debate about the permanence of a future independent Catalonia in the EU will have an impact on similar processes that could potentially emerge in the UK or in Belgium. In this regard, further democratization of Europe should not be separated from the aspirations of its regions for greater sovereignty in a context of interdependence, where traditional nation-states will have to adapt to new demands and different situations.