1 June 2011

El Desencanto

By 10:30 PM last Sunday night, almost all of the precincts had reported in Spain’s municipal and regional elections, and the results were as expected: a rout. The conservative People’s Party picked up sizable majorities and overtook historic Socialist strongholds in Barcelona, Extremadura, and parts of Andalucía, while the Socialists sputtered out of office, looking rumpled and irrelevant. For months the PP had been almost visibly salivating as the Socialist Party unraveled amid soaring unemployment, anxiety over sovereign debt, and the implementation of austerity measures to keep off an IMF bailout. What made the results feel so baffling, in spite of all clear-eyed expectation, was how utterly disconnected they seemed from the unprecedented groundswell of activity the week before.

Election night marked a full week of literally unstinting protests in Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia, and throughout the country, the prolonged howl of a youth movement that calls itself Democracia Real Ya (Real Democracy Now) and has also been named 15-M, after the Sunday when protesters first took to the streets. The movement began with several thousand kids meeting in the Puerta del Sol, the central square in Madrid, after months of preparations on Facebook. They camped out in tents and the open air, flashing signs that showed their exasperation and resolve: Sin pan no habrá paz (Without Bread There Won’t be Peace), Vota contra bipartidismo (Vote Against the Two-Party System), Indignados (We’re Indignant), No es crisis, es estafa (It’s Not a Crisis, It’s Fraud).

Their numbers continued to swell, and the protests were the subject of the Monday evening talk shows, then the Tuesday morning papers; starchy analysts started to wonder if this wouldn’t mitigate certain victory for the PP. Then a consensus formed, consistent with earlier projections, that the demonstrations could only hurt the party in power (the Socialists). No one knew quite what to make of the situation: an unexpected swarm of protests, a mere week before elections, could ricochet in any direction. Critics on the right began to dismiss the protesters as an anarchist youth fringe, while also insisting that this was what misrule by the Socialists had wrought—economic hardship and unruly street demonstrations. The mass organizing that had delivered the fatal blow to the PP in 2004, after the terrorist bombing in March, was not far from people’s minds. Then there had been a legitimate clash between the parties, specifically about the Iraq War, but also about the PP’s mendacity in the aftermath of the March 11 attack. This time the protests reflected a more generalized malaise. Though the crisis may have made people cynical about government, it hadn’t yet suppressed their appetite for eleventh-hour pyrotechnics.

By Tuesday afternoon you could barely move in the gridlock of demonstrators, not all as young as the news commentators had reported, and chants were reverberating through the plaza: Que no, que no, que no nos representan (No, No, They don’t Represent Us), Lo llaman democracia y no lo es (They Call it Democracy but That’s Not It). I elbowed my way in; at the center of the plaza was a core group of organizers, and energy seemed to emanate from them and ripple through the crowd. It was hard to hear some of the soapbox tirades coming from the inner circle, but stray words– “corruption,” “banks,” “jobs” – escaped out into the air, galvanizing the crowds on the outskirts. The protests were peaceable and though spirited wholly under control. People who had hadn’t slept in two days, making signs and shouting slogans well into the night, might step on your foot but they still looked you in the eye to say excuse me. Their civility earned them even more supporters. Whole families started to show up in the evenings, older couples passed by after dinner, and stray visitors ventured comfortably into the fray. After a full week of protests, there were thronging crowds at least 30,000 strong in Madrid alone, more protests across the country, and gusts of solidarity coming from student demonstrations at Spanish embassies abroad.


The upcoming municipal elections were the occasion for the protests, yet the protesters seemed to be looking past them. The rallying cry was more a vent of desperation than a specific call to action. The national government has been busy battling a mounting public deficit and trying to restore faith in Spanish solvency by hewing to a battery of austerity measures prescribed by the IMF. But these efforts have either stymied or supplanted a credible job creation platform, which is essential now that unemployment, particularly tough on young people, is at record highs—over 20 percent. The core frustration of these protestors has been that if the Socialists don’t do something about unemployment, then it seemed no one will. The Socialists have taken the fall for repeated budget cuts, while PP leaders are preparing a series of privatization schemes years in the making.

The first wave of protestors—most of them in their twenties and in various stages of employment limbo—felt trapped by a system without parties or high-profile leaders sympathetic to their plight. Once unleashed, their lament began to sweep across a broader swath of the population, hardly better off in the crisis. The message of these rallies was apolitical: politics had failed to create the promise of jobs or even the semblance of government concern over rising costs of living and a dwindling social safety net. Protestors were scrupulous, even stern, about enforcing silence among their ranks about whom to vote for Sunday. Demonstrators used masking tape to cover their mouths at midnight on Friday, when a legally binding “day of reflection” came into effect, which made it illegal to disseminate party-specific election slogans for the last twenty-four hours before the election. An affirmation of their apolitical stance, it was also a symbolic gesture of respect for the law; nonetheless, it seemed a gratuitous concession when it was clear that authorities would not break up peaceful demonstrations anyway.

Standing among the protestors that night, their mouths sealed shut with tape, I realized just how hard it was to articulate a credible alternative program in positive terms. They weren’t being represented by the government. But what were they to do? To whom could they appeal? Some of their demands were more concrete than others. Chief among them was reforming the electoral code (specifically creating open lists of independent rather than party-sponsored candidates) and repealing a recent intellectual property law, which seemed to add insult to injury in a time of crisis by cracking down on unlicensed online downloads. There were also calls for specific job creation programs, the restoration of the retirement age to 65 (to free up thousands of jobs annually), the elimination of statutes of limitations on crimes of political corruption, prohibitions of more government bailouts of the banks, and more robust unemployment relief. (The proposals all are listed on the Democracia Real Ya website.) Ask people on the street, though, what they think are the primary objectives and their answers will vary, which is not necessarily a shortcoming of the movement and in fact may be a strength. The important thing for now, it seems, is the unifying sentiment, which melds a general sense of outrage with a non-violent platform modeled in some ways on the revolt in Iceland two years ago.

The movement is organized into city-based collectives that each contains local networks of micro delegations. One such delegation in Madrid is the Education Committee, designed to discuss questions related to public education. In the liveliest days of the protests, there were also the Food Committee, which distributed food and water and handled the influx of food donations; the Clean-Up Committee, equipped with brooms and dust pans, which bagged and tossed trash so as not to overextend municipal sanitation services; and the Arts Committee, which coordinated sign-making and the admirably choreographed drum processionals that flowed out of the plaza on weekend afternoons. Protesters have also erected an infirmary in the plaza, distributed sunscreen during the hot weekend, passed out bottles of water during Sunday’s assembly meetings, and directed car traffic along the Calle Mayor hours before the elections.

This is notably simpler stuff than crafting unemployment relief. But the problems plaguing the country appear too gargantuan for pointed, civic-driven remedy, not with both parties so deeply sunken in the morass. These committees and assemblies are the stuff of new beginnings, an act of resuscitation, even nostalgia for a simpler way. In the basic mechanics of the organizing is an affirmation of a sort of rustic ideal – circles of discussion groups, direct input, organic argument – in the face of unresponsive, top-heavy government bureaucracy kept remote and upright by neoliberal dogma and foreign institutions. The problem is easy to see: the government, towering upward, comes bearing down, and these organizers are scuttling to the side; it’s unclear if that will amount to progress or diversion. Already, in the immediate aftermath of the elections, the crowds are beginning to dwindle. And protestors’ earlier, prideful slogans announcing their seriousness (Esto no es un botellón: respetad y sed responsables, This isn’t some binge: be respectful and responsible) may soon give way to something less pristine.


Still, unbelievably, the election results came in apparently unbruised. The spread reflected just the phenomenon protestors were decrying, a systematic two-party strangulation of political life. The culprit, as expected, was turnout: low among traditional Socialist supporters in contrast to the PP rank and file, which showed up in droves. Izquierda Unida (The United Left Coalition), a perennial third-party alternative that stood to gain more than any other coalition from the 15-M contingent, ended up with a modest 6.3 percent of the vote, only marginally better than their usual results. Another nascent third party alternative, formed by disgruntled socialists, fared no better. It’s unclear how the protestors ultimately voted (or didn’t)—abstention was high nationwide on Sunday.

At 10:30PM on election night, the crowds amassed in the Puerta del Sol were still unfazed. They maintained that they weren’t interested in the elections. They had a program of their own, and intended to follow it. A little before 11 I sat with about one hundred people—from somewhat bedraggled teenagers to polo-clad middle-aged people—in a meeting of the Education Committee, in a semi-illuminated plaza behind El Corte Ingles Department store. A guy next to me, wearing sagging Levis and a pair of red All-Stars, had requested the megaphone and was saying that he thought an earlier resolution had been misunderstood; it wasn’t that the “teaching of religion as a spiritual phenomenon should be prohibited in schools,” only that the “traditional Catholic establishment view should cease to dominate.” The rest of the group waved their hands in a show of agreement. Later they would report this consensus position to a still larger group, for a future vote and some eventual codification.

I was confused. Did they know that the PP, led by a woman with professed admiration for the “American Tea Party,” had plans to privatize the province’s schools? What were their plans to stop her? In fact, in one of the odder turns of the campaign, this woman, the incumbent leader of the Community of Madrid named Esperanza Aguirre, had finally admitted on the eve of the election that she had entrusted the financing of two public schools to British and Spanish venture capital firms. Her opponent had been saying as much all along (although he claimed they were American firms, which sounded like an attempt to make the plan seem even worse).


Back in September, during a nationwide strike led by the labor unions to protest government austerity measures, there were already the makings of the 15-M movement. Even then, in the crowds of marginalized workers and precarious pensioners, there was a budding subclass of the dispossessed. They were almost all young people, and they wore buttons that read: Yo hago huelga pero no computo (I am striking, but I don’t count.) What they meant was that they couldn’t be counted toward the official number of strikers who had not shown up to work; they didn’t have jobs to boycott in the first place. Since then their situation has only gotten worse, and European politicians and economists, stealing worried glances at Spain, have anointed them “the lost generation.” It gives new meaning to the signs hanging in gimmicky restaurants along the Plaza Mayor: “Hemingway never ate here.” 

Unemployment among young people in Spain is over 40 percent, and this covers a wide array of joblessness, from university graduates who have no job market to enter to those who dropped out of school when the real estate boom promised inflated salaries in the construction sector. Now, as the Spanish economy inches along well below desired levels, economists project the internal market will take at best a few years to come around; employment, everyone agrees, will lag several years, maybe even decades, behind. There is literally no end in sight, only, it would seem, these humble beginnings. 

Image: 15-M Protests, Barcelona, May 28, 2011. From aizeaarce.

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