May 15: from Outrage to Hope
There is no doubt that Sunday, May 15, 2011 has come to mark a turning point: from the web to the street, from conversations around the kitchen table to mass mobilisations, but more than anything else, from outrage to hope. Tens of thousands of people, ordinary citizens responding to a call that started and spread on the internet, have taken the streets with a clear and promising demand: they want a real democracy, a democracy no longer tailored to the greed of the few, but to the needs of the people. They have been unequivocal in their denunciation of a political class that, since the beginning of the crisis, has run the country by turning away from them and obeying the dictates of the euphemistically called “markets”.
We will have to watch over the next weeks and months to see how this demand for real democracy now takes shape and develops. But everything seems to point to a movement that will grow even stronger. The clearest sign of its future strength comes from the taking over of public squares and the impromptu camping sites that have appeared in pretty much every major Spanish town and city. Today––four days after the first march––social networks are bursting with support for the movement, a virtual support that is bolstered by its resonance in the streets and squares. While forecasting where this will take us is still too difficult, it is already possible to advance some questions that this movement has put on the table.
First, the criticisms that have been raised by the May 15 Movement are spot on. A growing sector of the population is outraged by parliamentary politics as we have come to known them, as our political parties are implementing it today––by making the weakest sectors of society pay for the crisis. In the last few years we have witnessed with a growing sense of disbelief how the big banks received millions in bail-outs, while cuts in social provision, brutal assaults on basic rights and covert privatisations ate away at an already skeletal Spanish welfare state. Today, no one doubts that these politics are a danger to our present and our immediate future. This outrage is made even more explicit when it is confronted by the cowardice of politicians, unable to put an end to the rule of the financial world. Where did all those promises to give capitalism a human face made in the wake of the sub-prime crisis go? What happened to the idea of abolishing tax havens? What became of the proclamation that the financial system would be brought under control? What of the plans to tax speculative gains and the promise to stop tax benefits for the highest earners?
Second, the May 15 Movement is a lot more than a warning to the so-called Left. It is possible (in fact it is quite probable) that on May 22, when local and regional elections take place in Spain, the left will suffer a catastrophic defeat. If that were the case, it would be only be a preamble to what would happen in the general elections. What can be said today without hesitation is that the institutional left (parties and major unions) is the target of a generalised political disaffection due to its sheer inability come up with novel solutions to this crisis. This is where the two-fold explanation of its predicted electoral defeat lies. On the one hand, its policies are unable to step outside a completely tendentious way of reading the crisis that, to this day, accepts that the problem lies in the scarcity of our resources. Let’s say it loud and clear: no such a problem exists, there is no lack of resources, the real problem is the extremely uneven way in which wealth is distributed, and financial “discipline” is making this problem even more acute every passing day. Where are the infinite benefits of the real estate bubble today? Where are the returns of such ridiculous projects as the airports in Castellón or Lleida, to name but a few? Who is benefiting from the gigantic mountain of debt crippling so many families and individuals? The institutional left has been unable to stand on the side of, and work with, the many emerging movements that are calling for freedom and democracy. Who can forgive Zapatero’s words when the proposal to accept the dación de pago was rejected by parliament on the basis that it could “jeopardise the solvency of the Spanish financial system”? Who was he addressing with these words? The millions of people enslaved by their mortgages or the interests of major banks? And what can we say of their indecent law of intellectual property, the infamous Ley Sinde? Was he standing with those who have given shape to the web or with those who plan to make money out of it, as if culture was just another commodity? If the institutional left continues to ignore social movements, if it refuses to break away from a script written by the financial and economic elites and fails to come out with a plan B that could lead us out of the crisis, it will stay in opposition for a very long time. There is no time for more deferrals: either they change or they will lose whatever social legitimation they still have to represent the values they claim to stand for.
Third, the May 15 Movement reveals that far from being the passive agents that so many analysts take them to be, citizens have been able to organise themselves in the midst of a profound crisis of political representation and institutional abandonment. The new generations have learnt how to shape the web, creating new ways of “being together”, without taking recourse to ideological clichés, armed with a savvy pragmatism, escaping from pre-conceived political categories and big bureaucratic apparatuses. We are witnessing the emergence of new “majority minorities” that demand democracy in the face of a war “of all against all” and the idiotic atomisation promoted by neoliberalism, one that demands social rights against the logic of privatisation and cuts imposed by the economical powers. And it is quite possible that at this juncture old political goals will be of little or no use. Hoping for an impossible return to the fold of Estate, or aiming for full employment––like the whole spectrum of the Spanish parliamentary left seems to be doing––is a pointless task. Reinventing democracy requires, at the very least, pointing to new ways of distributing wealth, to citizenship rights for all regardless of where they were born (something in keeping with this globalised times), to the defence of common goods (environmental resources, yes, but also knowledge, education, the internet and health) and to different forms of self-governance that can leave behind the corruption of current ones.
Finally, it is important to remember that the May 15 Movement is linked to a wider current of European protests triggered as a reaction to so-called “austerity” measures. These protests are shaking up the desert of the real, leaving behind the image of a formless and silent mass of European citizens that so befits the interests of political and economical elites. We are talking here of campaigns like the British UKUncut against Cameron’s policies, of the mass mobilisations of Geraçao a Rasca in Portugal, or indeed of what took place in Iceland after the people decided not to bail out the bankers. And, of course, inspiration is found above all in the Arab Uprising, the democratic revolts in Egypt and Tunisia who managed to overthrow their corrupt leaders.
Needless to say, we have no idea what the ultimate fate of the May 15 Movement will be. But we can definitely state something at this stage, now we have at least two different routes out of this crisis: implementing yet more cuts or constructing a real democracy. We know what the first one has delivered so far: not only has it failed to bring back any semblance of economic “normality”, it has created an atmosphere of “everyman for himself”, a war of all against all. The second one promises an absolute and constituent democracy, all we can say about it is that it has just begun and that is starting to lay down its path. But the choice seems clear to us, it is down this path that we would like to go.