The May 15 Movement in Spain

One of their key messages was “they don’t represent us.” “They” referred to the two major parties, the right-wing Partido Popular (PP) and the PSOE, social democrats committed to neoliberalism, which have exercised power in turn over the last thirty years. In Catalonia the conservative nationalist party CiU was included.

Roots of the Movement

Before looking in detail at this movement, let us look at the country in which it arose. As Spain emerged from the Franco dictatorship in the late 1970s the aim of its ruling class was to join the mainstream of European capitalism. In 1982 it joined NATO and in 1986 became part of the European Union (EU). From then until the financial crisis of 2007-08, with a few hiccups, it seemed to be upwards all the way, as Spain modernized and “caught up” with Europe.

But we need to look at the economic underpinnings of this particular “miracle.” Spain started out on its European journey with a weak and backward industrial base. From the 1950s onwards the growth of its economy was based largely on tourism and construction. The construction industry was based to a considerable extent on the needs of the expanding tourist industry – hotels, infrastructure, etc. But building housing accommodation for new homeowners became increasingly important. Spain went from having a majority of people living as renters in the 1950s to 87 percent home ownership in 2007 (compared with slightly below 70 percent for the USA, Canada and Britain). Later on, property developers and the construction industry also profited from the demand for middle-class second homes and foreign holiday homes. As regards the tourism/construction axis, there was continuity from the late Franco era through succeeding governments of the PP and PSOE.

Spain’s membership of the EU rapidly led to foreign takeovers of most of Spanish industry and retail distribution. The exceptions were the banks, construction and the state-owned electricity and telecommunications companies. Later electricity and telecoms were privatized, leading to the creation of Spanish multinationals (the biggest being Telefonica), which bought up privatized utilities in Latin America and became the dominant players in the region. At the same time the big Spanish banks BBVA and Santander also became major players in Latin America.

In the decade before the US subprime crisis opened a major economic crisis, Spanish house prices were rising at 12 percent per year and providing credit for their owners. The credit-fuelled boom concealed the fact that real wages were stagnant or falling and social expenditure was low. The gaps in the state’s social safety net were compensated for by migrant workers who took over child care, domestic work and care for the elderly. By 2010 there were 6 million immigrants in Spain, most of whom had arrived over the previous ten years. Apart from domestic work they were mainly engaged in construction and agriculture.

Another very important aspect was also concealed by the credit-fuelled boom: the problem of unemployment and precarious employment. Even during the boom years Spain had a relatively high rate of unemployment, between 8 and 12 percent. However, this was not structural unemployment, but a reflection of an economy where a third of the labour force was engaged in temporary work and many people worked in seasonal jobs in tourism and agriculture. People, especially young people, were not so much unemployed as permanently rotating between jobs.

The crisis and the bursting of the housing and property bubble changed all that. As in a game of musical chairs, the music suddenly stopped, and it became clear that there were many more players than chairs. This time the unemployment rate was real and structural: 20 percent overall and 40 percent among people under 25. And among those who could still find work, much of it was precarious.

A New Movement

That was the social base for the emergence of what has become known as the M-15 movement. Like the Arab Spring, like the mass demonstrations against precarious work in Portugal in March this year, the movement that surfaced on May 15 was prepared by social media, the preferred means of communication of the generation that organized it. In addition to being an effective and rapid way to mobilize, for the political establishment this also has the disconcerting characteristic of generating movements that seem to come out of thin air. Any idea, however, that the M-15 movement would disappear in the same way was quickly dispelled. 

The movement spread like wild fire – the Spanish daily El Pais counted 160 towns and cities that were affected by May 20. Its characteristic form of action was the occupation of squares, usually the main square in each city – the Puerta del Sol in Madrid, the Plaza Catalunya in Barcelona and so on. In each case, some of the demonstrators camped in the squares, occupying them permanently. The reference to Tahrir Square in Cairo was explicit.

The movement took the name of indignados, the “indignant ones”, in reference to the best-selling booklet by the octogenarian veteran of the French Resistance, Stephane Hessel, Indignez-vous! (Get indignant!) which had already appeared in a Spanish translation. They described themselves as “the unemployed, mileuristas (those who earn less than 1000 euros a month), housewives, migrants.” The first slogan that appeared was democracia real ya (“real democracy, now”). 

This emphasis on democracy led some observers to consider that it was in fact just about that, not a challenge to the socio-economic order. In fact the initial emphasis on democracy was a sign that the movement was political. It was not just an expression of protest at their situation; it was from the start a recognition that one of the factors perpetuating it was the two-party system which prevails in Spain as it does in much of Europe, alternating centre-right and centre-left governments that are equally committed to neoliberal policies. But another early slogan was “We are not commodities in the hands of politicians and bankers.”

The movement had no discernable impact on the May 22 elections, which were predictably disastrous for the governing PSOE, while the PP and the radical left Izquerdia Unida (IU — United Left, dominated by the Communist Party) made modest gains.

New Challenges

As the movement continued it found itself confronted with two challenges, one of form and one of content. Let us take the form first of all. The reference to Tahrir Square was a recognition of the inspiration drawn from Egypt and Tunisia. But in Spain there was no Ben Ali or Mubarak to be overthrown, no question of remaining in the streets and the squares until the regime fell. In Spain, in Europe, the enemy is not a political dictatorship. It is a whole system, the dictatorship of capital in a democratic form, and the struggle against it in its economic, political and social aspects will be long. After much discussion, including at a national meeting with representatives of more than 50 cities on June 4-5, the tactic of permanent occupation of main squares came to an end, being voted by mass assemblies in Madrid on June 8 and Barcelona on June 10. It was replaced by a tactic of spreading out into neighbourhoods and suburbs, establishing local assemblies, while still reserving the right to hold periodic mass assemblies in the main squares.

Out of this first period of the movement there began to appear answers to the question that confronts all those who fight against neoliberalism: what is your alternative? On June 5 the assembly at Puerta del Sol in Madrid produced 16 propositions that it submitted for discussion. The document began by proposing referenda on key reforms concerning labour and pensions. It covered the question of employment (reduction of the working week, ban on lay-offs in companies making profits), housing (opposition to evictions, provision of affordable social housing) and demanded a progressive taxation system and a campaign against fraud. It went on to deal with banking and finance (opposition to privatization of regional banks, control of banking activities, abolition of tax havens). It demanded a moratorium and an audit on both debts owed by foreign countries to the Spanish state and Spain’s public debt.

The end of the permanent occupation of the squares and the expansion of the movement’s geographical and social implantation made it more important to have both local and central initiatives. At a local level one main focus of activity was opposition to, and sometimes prevention of, the frequent evictions that have been the sequel to the bursting of the housing bubble. Another has been support for strikes, for example of health workers in Barcelona.

On June 15 the movement in Barcelona mobilized for a blockade of a session of the Catalan parliament which was due to vote on a budget that would cut public spending by ten percent. The blockade was meant to be a peaceful act of civil disobedience, combined with an appeal to opposition MPs in particular — in Catalonia, the PSOE, the IU and the Catalan independence movement ERC — to boycott the session. However, there were incidents where arriving parliamentarians of both government and opposition were jostled, spat on and sprayed with paint. It seems that these incidents were partly the result of police provocateurs and partly of the worst elements of the libertarian left. However, in a country with a history of fascism and relatively young liberal democratic institutions attacks on elected representatives do not go down well with the public.

The incidents were seized upon by right-wing politicians and sections of the media to launch a witch-hunt against the movement, and not only in Barcelona. The indignados were accused of wanting to attack democratic institutions and threatened with legal action. But the main thrust of the offensive was ideological and political, with the very specific aim of discrediting the movement and undermining mass demonstrations planned for June 19. Some right-wing commentators referred to the planned march in Madrid as the “march on Madrid” (as in Mussolini’s 1922 march on Rome). Parallels were also drawn with the kale borroka, the street actions by young Basque activists, which really were quite violent.

It became crucially important for the movement, particularly in Barcelona, to defuse this offensive by reaffirming its commitment to non-violent protest. Pressure for this came not only from the more sympathetic sections of the mainstream workers’ movement, such as the IU and the Workers’ Commissions (CC.OO.), one of the main union confederations, but from within the movement. Non-violent protest was clearly reaffirmed; the disarming of the ideological offensive of the Right was helped by the disproportionate outpourings of some of its supporters.

The June 19 demonstrations were an enormous success. There were hundreds of thousands of demonstrators, 150,000 in Madrid alone, where six feeder marches converged on the Puerta del Sol. The mobilization in Barcelona was also enormous and there were demonstrations all over the country, from the Basque Country to the Canaries. The composition of the demonstrations was also changing. There were still plenty of young people, but also many from older generations, trade unionists and significant numbers of migrants, particularly Latin Americans. The political thrust was also sharper, moving on from general denunciations to targeting specific measures — “No to the Euro Pact” (a project aiming to enforce austerity and structural adjustment on eurozone countries).

What Next?

Where does the movement go from here? First of all, it will continue. Initiatives are already planned: marches from different parts of the country converging on Madrid on July 23, a day of mobilization on October 15. The question of a general strike has come to the fore, being raised particularly on June 15.

This puts at the centre of things the question of the movement’s relation to the unions and left parties. Initially, only small libertarian unions like the CNT and the CGT rallied to the movement. The main confederations, CC.OO and UGT, looked on from a distance, disconcerted by a movement that they had not anticipated any more than anyone else, and which was a challenge to them. In fact these confederations are a large part of the problem. After a successful general strike on September 29, 2010, their officials basically caved in to the government, signed up to a neoliberal reform of pensions and put a block on mobilizations. However, links are now developing with sections of these confederations, especially the CC.OO.  

Politically the far left has been present, helped by the fact that its members are largely young and can relate fairly easily to the indignados. The IU has also expressed support for the movement, but seems to have had more difficulty, as a party of the traditional Left, in relating to it, though that can change.

How the movement interacts with the political and trade union wings of the workers’ movement — and vice versa — will be crucial for the future of resistance to austerity and neoliberalism in Spain. It is difficult to conceive of the indignados unleashing a general strike on their own, going around the main unions. But they can give a powerful shot in the arm to all those rank-and-file militants who want to fight, and even exert pressure on the official leaderships. And as they continue to evolve politically, they are also likely to shake up the radical Left.

What is happening in Spain is not unique. It was preceded by the demonstrations in Portugal in March and has clearly exerted an influence on young people in Greece. And in other ways young people have come into political action over the last year in other countries such as France, Italy and Britain. It does not seem too optimistic to discern the outlines of a generation in Europe that is refusing to be sacrificed on the altar of the crisis and that is now moving into action.

Murray Smith is a member of the anti-capitalist party Dei Lenk (The Left) in Luxemburg.