Critical engagements in spain’s 15th of May movement

Spain’s 15th of May movement, born in 2011, is one of the most significant political and social movements of our time. Its promise has been great. But also its weaknesses, weaknesses which those quick to condemn movements in the name of some kind of radical ideological purity have not hesitated to proffer. These last however are not our concern. 15M continues, not though as a unified movement, which it never was, but as a complex of initiatives, acts, and resonances that generate and sustain realities that often openly contest State-Capital. And thus it remains crucially important to understand the trajectory of the movement and possible paths that remain open to it. What follows is a critical and committed reading of the movement by Jesús García Rodríguez that originally appeared in Ekintza Zuzena nº 41, Bilbao, 2014, and which we present here in translation.

The 15M that I lived: A critical view not without hope

The 15M that I lived and the “official version”. On occasion, reading or listening to what others say or write about what was “15M” (the popular movement that has now become a registered trademark), it seems as if I am before two parallel realities which never touched. In these oral or written narratives, one speaks only, exclusively, and to exclude, of a “citizens movement”, “popular legislative initiatives”, of “more or better democracy”, etc. This was, in effect, part of what I lived in Madrid since May of 2011, but NOT ONLY. These settled narratives obviate a series of realities that I and others experienced and which appear to have been abandoned to the back room of history. I now propose now to speak of them, so that they cease to be a little less forgotten, in a sort of dispassionate summary of those days of libertarianism, happiness and occupation.

15M and its contradictions. From one perspective, 15M sought to present itself as a citizens movement, with the vocation of citizenship; from this source came organizations like DRY or Juventud Sin Futuro, (1) present in the original protest. However, also from the first moment, it also supplied itself with practices that belonged to the arsenal of more or less libertarian praxis, brought to it by other participating organizations: self-management (employed with singular success from the beginning of the occupation of Sol and in other cities) and the abolition of money (in an expressive sign of the library of the acampada de Sol, one could read unashamedly: “In Sol the only thing that is prohibited is money”), and it opted for assemblies as the instrument of organisation and elaboration of their “demands”, assemblies that could serve as an example for the “corrupt democrats” of direct democracy, but which, because of their horizontal, free and open character, they were also, and in themselves, nuclei of enormous transformative political potential.

It was undoubtedly evident that both tendencies (citizenship-ism (2) and libertarian elements) would collide at a certain point. And this dichotomy was, already from the beginning, a source of misunderstandings and confusions: activists and followers of earlier social and political struggles believed that it was the occasion in which a noticeable crack would open in the system that would allow them to give free reign to their past hopes for a real transformation. Nevertheless, a large number of the “citizens” – as was immediately to be proven – were not sympathetic to this radical transformation, but were rather more inclined to a more or less moderate reformism that would cover over some of the graver lacunae generated by speculative capitalism, without ever questioning capitalism as such.

We do not ignore that their seemed to exist a kind of common ground between both tendencies that found expression in the refusal of representation – the famous “they don’t represent us” – , in an opposition to savage capitalism, or in disgust with and protest against an ever more asphyxiating existential climate within the western, parliamentary “democracies”. Nevertheless, even this common ground revealed itself to be false: while some believed emphatically and literally in the rejection of representation and advocated for a non-representational regime, others simply wanted to modify some aspects of the same, to “polish” parliamentarianism; while some opposed with all of their energy capitalism as such and all of its consequences, others still believed that the economic framework of the system was salvageable, and advocated “humanising” capital; while some sought a free life altogether outside capital and the state, and its multiple apparatuses and derivations, others continued to desire navigating in the same waters, though in a far more firm and renovated ship.

Two inventions of 15M. The occupation (acampada) was without a doubt the motor and at the same time the original breeding ground of the movement. It was in this primordial magma of the occupation where the contributions mentioned above made themselves felt, but also where a political weapon previously unknown began to gestate: the okupation of public spaces, for the creation of free spaces for completely horizontal debate of political subjects and to begin self-managing common experiences. As a most effective political instrument, it had been used in other places (New York, London, Israel, Oakland, etc.) to give voice and agency to generalised discontent and to confront established powers. In the case of the occupation of Sol, its capacity to generate a vast, enormously creative poetic-political and liberatory apparatus was overwhelming in its first weeks of life, and it left a trace difficult to erase in the consciousness of those who had the chance to enjoy it. Nevertheless, its very fragility – the basis of its enchantment and beauty – brought it to an end, due to the enormous problem of living together and the internal organisation that this demanded.

There is nevertheless another line of action, one of the most celebrated of 15M, where the contradictions seemed again to quickly dissolve and where the unity of opposites seemed to newly furnish it with strength: the stopping of evictions. The evictions transformed themselves into a place where magically the desires of citizenship-ism came together with the pretensions of those more ideologically committed, permitting in one sole package the combining of the defence of the very poor and the disinherited, the denunciation of the excesses of capitalist speculation, and the direct confrontation with judicial, economic, and police powers. The direct opposition to evictions not only presupposes a direct struggle against banks, judges, and their police, but is also in itself an act of popular disobedience against the legality of the State, and carries as such in its heart the seeds of rebellion; it is also a pure and powerful act of solidarity with those who are exposed, and, even if it amounts to little, a mobilisation of forces in neighbourhoods that may be of singular importance for the elaboration of strategies, modes of action and social unities directed towards the future. In this sense, the actions carried out in defence of the evicted may be otherwise recuperated by any struggle, inside or outside 15M.

Real Democracy Now. The fundamental differences began to make themselves evident the moment when DRY started to assume the role of protagonist within 15M – especially outside Madrid and Barcelona – and, once the encampments of Sol and other cities were dismantled, it tried by all of the means available to it to anesthetise the latent revolutionary potential and belligerency of the neighbourhood and town assemblies. This manipulating and seductive labour reached its paroxysm with the creation of various groups for the revitalization of the assemblies – as if a free assembly would need to be revitalised – , with those who pretended to insert their thinking and their demands at the neighbourhood level, and with the great flood of people of the Marches of Indignation, from the 21st to the 24th of June, 2011, and with it, with those who sought to direct the flow of the multitude of wills that came together from all over the country towards a final political objective: the Parliament. The Marches of Indignation were without a doubt a point of inflection within the growing disjunction inside 15M: while the citizenship-ist leadership was very clear that what was important for it was to introduce in whatever way its demands into Parliament, a great mass of people believed they were coming to Madrid to change the world, to destroy the power of money and the state, or, at least, to insult and harass as much as possible the “representatives of the people”. None of this last occurred, because the basic objective was already attained: to have a reformist, tepid, citizens’ document reach the hands of their lords, in a gesture of political opportunism. The indignant of the marches were left to the political inclemency of the next day, with nothing to do once having been used, and from the their encampment in Neptuno Square, they had to bear witness to how the greater part of 15M of Madrid feigned to have nothing to do with them. Many opted to return to their respective places of origin, and those who remained still had to live a further moment of manipulation: when a spontaneous assembly was organised in front of the Congress, in Neptuno, after an improvised protest, to be then evacuated en masse, in the name of solidarity, fear and non-violence, to the Puerta de Hierro, where their possible destabilising potential was diverted to a focus on peripheral activities. This was followed by another thematic assembly on non-violence, also in Neptuno, in which they were put through a catechism on citizenship-ism and their revolutionary impulses were reduced to a minimum; this assembly, on the other hand, revealed the other face of the dichotomy citizenship-revolution, expressed in this case in terms of “non-violence”-“violence”.

Ethics of violence. The debate on non-violence has been another point of contention at the heart of 15M, and also as regards other areas of struggle. Already set forth since the beginning as a sectarian ideology that grew to the point of acquiring metaphysical overtones, non-violence generated the space for the legitimation of citizenship-ism and placed in turn limits on this citizenship-ism. For citizenship-ism, non-violence is furthermore a perfect strategy: it enables the movement to use police violence in its favour – as happened with the different examples of police attacks against 15M – in the same way that the judoka uses the brute force of the aggressor to gain more strength. In the very Gandhian dialectic of resistance – attack –reinforcement of my resistance, the apologists of citizenship feel comfortable and feel themselves to grow, especially when, in their own ranks, in turn, they close down all expressions of possible violence within their own lines with their cohorts of Respect, didactic, repressive and authoritarian bodies that allow and demand that the citizens continue to be citizens at every moment. The task of the “Commission of Respect”, present from the beginning of the encampment, was not only pedagogical – imbuing the principles of ahimsa, non-violence – but also strategically and politically silencing. The greater part of the colossal destructive revolutionary potential of the masses was completely diluted and placated by being led through the sieve of these principles. Violence and direct confrontation were not, for the defenders of citizenship, anything more than a contradiction and an obstacle to their eager flight towards the institutions of power.

A hard blow for the reformists. In the context of citizenship demands and the search for programmatic minimums and in the wake of the torrid summer of 2011, in late night hours and with malice of forethought, a sudden and terrific reform of the constitution was carried through by the Socialist government with the complete support of the conservatives of the Partido Popular.(3) The reform quickly executed and run through to its conclusion following orders from Paris and Berlin, made evident in all of its repulsive obscenity how much power concerned itself with the opinion of its subjects and citizens. It was without a doubt a hard blow for the reformists, who had been calling for, since the 15th of May (some like DRY even before), a consensual and civilised reform of the terribly Spanish constitution inherited from Franco, and it put a quick halt, momentarily, to its bland strategy of asking for crumbs from power. This reform served in turn to legitimate still further the position of those who within 15M showed themselves resistant to negotiate with power, and who no longer expected anything from it except its annihilation.

15O and its consequences. The ideological blurring of 15M reached without a doubt it’s most intense expression just before, during and soon after the great “global demonstration” of the 15th of October of 2011. Planned as a global event, and with DRY as the most implicated and interested party (along with other groupuscules) through the networks that it continued to create at the international level after the 15th of May, the demonstration attracted, in effect, hundreds of thousands of citizens throughout the world, in a great collective ceremony where the desire was to unite the struggle of citizenship with New Age elements and citizenship-ism with the spiritual movement of the “new world order”. This desire to bring together a socio-political movement with spirituality and with attitudes and ideas of a religious odour allowed the citizens’ movement to equip itself with the appearance of cohesion and ideological profundity which it lacked, and thus manage a simplistic and distinguishing idealism that differentiated it from what was common to the assembled urban and dense mass. Political confrontation shined by its absence, and the possibility of transgression dissolved itself in a naive voluntarism. Everything seemed to lose itself in a diffuse horizon of colourful flowers, smiling emoticons and armour against the black magic of markets (not of capital), when, in the middle of the night of 15O in Madrid, and a little before in Barcelona, the okupations of the spaces Nou Barris and of the Hotel Madrid on Carretas Street took place as a kind of last hope in the lugubrious sky of monotony. These okupations were received with scepticism (when not with absolute repugnance) by the greater part of the citizens who apparently make up 15M. Nevertheless, following the logic of events and the efforts of some, these made clear that the politics of okupations could and should be the coherent continuation of the politics against eviction hitherto pursued. But in addition to opening up a new front in the struggle against bank and real estate speculation, the sympathy for these actions began to grow, more or less thereby revealing a path for radical actions that permit a direct opposition to the established powers.

In effect, the Hotel Madrid and the edifice 15O (4) were very praiseworthy efforts to work in something that was already evident in Greece: the okupation of spaces for the organisation and diffusion of everyday solidarity, large spaces managed by and for the people, that is, no longer by exemplary citizens, but by illegal okupantes of private and public non-places; who therefore seek to transform them into open spaces, freed from capitalist and/or state logic. This presumed a qualitative advance in the struggles of 15M, and the wave of okupations that has followed them is symptomatic of the re-birth of this dynamics of struggle.

Repression, strike and celebration. The Cabalgata Indignada, on the day of kings of 2012, was perhaps the first moment of direct confrontation between 15M groups and a recently elected PP government that had announced a heavy hand from the beginning. The police action was brutal; there were violent aggressions and detentions in the context of a festive march with children and older people. The system wanted to make it clear that it was not going to consent to games of this kind. However, in spite of the virulence of the tactic of terror, the Cabalgata was able to continue to its conclusion, which can be seen as a modest triumph against the violence of the state.

The next act of resistance, with its consequent and brutal wave of repression, took place the following month, with the general strike of the 29th of March of 2012. Called for by the majority labour unions, it was groups at their margins who assumed the principal protagonism on the streets. The disturbances were particularly virulent in Barcelona, with numerous skirmishes, barricades, the burning of garbage containers and the use of teargas. The final balance was 176 arrested on this day alone in the whole of Spanish state, but in the days and even months that followed preventive incarcerations and a posteriori detentions would touch as many as 300 persons. In turn, the non-peaceful behaviour of blocks of demonstrators in Barcelona brought with it a campaign of criminalisation of collectives and the movement and the announcement of a hardening of the penalties against those who participated in the disturbances. In any case, in cities like Madrid, Barcelona or Oviedo, the collaboration between alternative labour unions, 15M groups and other collectives in different pickets configured a scenario of direct action and resistance that had not been seen in a general strike for some time. The demonstration in Madrid called by the Bloque Unitario, on the very afternoon of this day, and in opposition to the demonstration called by the UGT and the CCOO, was multitudinous and far more numerous than this last – probably the largest demonstration called by libertarian collectives since the massive demonstrations of the CNT of the 1920s – and demonstrated the existence of an immense critical mass opposed to the politics of the government and the labour unions that collaborate with it.

25S and the verticalist drift. 25S introduced a series of elements that opposed it to what had been until then 15M, with its innate heterogeneity. Emerging from an obscure platform with obvious intentions to make a tabla rasa of what had preceded it and to so pass onto “direct action”, it trampled on the assembly-ism, horizontalism and transparency earlier assumed and it introduced a way of doing things much closer to that of the well known labour unions, with whose dynamics and ends it showed considerable affinity. The initial forcefulness of its proposals and methods were tempered with the passing months, with the aim of attracting a greater following: “Take the Congress” became “Surround the Congress”; from a convoking platform, it moved to discussion in assemblies, and with assemblies, to arrive at consensuses. Notwithstanding this makeup operation, the authoritarian turn of a more opaque, vanguard struggle that imposed itself on 15M was evident, as well as the softening of its objectives. The Coordinadora 25S proposed, in a first moment, the convocation of a referendum and the resignation of the government, initiatives which curiously coincided with those of the majority labour unions and of the left-wing political parties. In a second moment, they opted for the fantasies that mixed with the more citizenship centred proposals of DRY and 15M: the opening of a deconstituente process, to be followed by an ordered and institutionalised constituent process that would inaugurate what many already called “the second transition”. The obscurity that shadowed these processes and who would develop them accompanied the convocation, even if “popular assemblies” were timidly spoken of, and seemed to point more emphatically to committees of the learned and of experts, leaving therefore yet again the construction of political realities in the hands of elites who would elaborate the laws.

The 25S demonstration was multitudinous and eminently mediatised. And its eviction was expeditive, almost military, before a police deployment rarely seen, that included up to 1,400 “agents of order” and the puerile effort to make a small group of anti-fascists responsible for the violence carried out by the police against the assembled mass; and this not only by the government and the police unions, as was to be expected, but also by the organisers of 25S.

The 25S convocation reveals then an attempt to move a Negrian multitude to action and to free it definitively from what for many had become a burden, neither desired nor shared: real assembly-ism, horizontality, anti-authoritarianism and libertarian practices. The meeting in Madrid of a German Bundestag parliamentary commission with some of these collectives – PAH, DRY, neighbourhood associations, 15M assemblies, etc. – on the 11th of October, again enveloped in opacity, secretism and a lack of horizontality, was a further display of the desire of citizens’ pressure groups to elevate themselves to the status of protagonists of a vertical struggle ever closer to that practiced by institutionalised groups.

The “mareas”: with them arrived the disintegration. The politics of austerity and cuts in the public sphere generated great discontent among the class of civil servants. This led to the use of the culture and the dynamics created by 15M by corporatist collectives – principally education, health, and administrative public employees – for particular demands. Beneath the banner of “citizens’ tides”, the labour unions of power injected their objectives and their members into 15M, thereby systematically erasing whatever trace there was of an autonomous popular struggle. With them came division and dissolution. These unions parcelled, atomised and organised the struggle in the streets according to their own compartmentalised and organic structures. What before had been a massive will to change things was reduced to the spineless struggles of professional associations demanding their particular and restrictive rights. The coup de grâce of the original 15M seemed given.

Weak points. The problem of the internal contradictions of 15M remains. Especially flagrant are those born within the reformist tendency of the movement that appear to be difficult to resolve within a horizontal and assembly based movement. How can their demands be incorporated in real and effective power? What bridge or what common space exists between its pretensions, its demands and political practice? Who can become the emissary of its demands except a new group of political representatives of some kind? What path remains to them other than creating a new political party or to join in the direct action of more radical groups? This dead end where the more citizenship centred elements of 15M seem to have arrived does not leave untouched the more combative groups of the movement, who continually see their thirst for confrontation tempered, softened and mitigated.

Together with this, other current deficiencies or weaknesses of 15M need to be highlighted, that contribute to its dismemberment. Firstly, the assemblies are in no way as strong and as representative as might be desired. They suffer from a lack of cohesion, coordination and communication between them, thus failing to be the political basis upon which radical action emerges. Secondly, a notable infantilism – due to the youth of some of its members, or to the effects of a consumer society in general – serves to break the combative potential of the movement, diluting it in frankly banal matters and in an excess of convocations. And lastly, the forgetting or systematic omission of those detained, which clearly demonstrates an explicit intention to maintain a political struggle of low intensity, and which constitutes in turn a manifest crime against the internal solidarity demanded of any coherent political movement.

Yes, there is a future: motives for hope. As regards the future of 15M, or better what the movement contains, we believe that its continuity as a political experiment depends essentially on the strengthening and extension of the local assemblies. These assemblies, understood as political cells, will possess that much more validity, that much more legitimacy and more strength, the more that they distance themselves from the state, the more they oppose it directly and the more capable they are in creating free and alternative spaces to the reigning power. Undoubtedly, the assemblies should be spaces of public debate about political matters of all types; their focus and the perspective that they bring to them however must be radical and transforming, as the opposite will only contribute to perpetuate what already exists. The assemblies must also continue to create, in turn, and in a systematic way, realities, affinity groups oriented towards actions that elaborate as much as possible collective structures of autonomy that function and relate to each other horizontally and that converge around the more or less common goals of destroying all of the possible facets of the capital-state complex. Only when it has broken all of its ties in a definitive way with the capitalist economic project and its forms of exploitation and domination, not just in theory, but de facto, can 15M free itself from the chains that currently limit it and augur its possible decadence. This supposes an intense labour of negation of what is given and the even more intense task of the affirmation and the creation of new realities. These realities will not be models (all models are totalitarian, as Vaneigem said), but experiences that continually found and re-found themselves, in an extensive and collective work in progress, based on solidarity, mutual aid, sentiments of community and common benefit.

This can only be realised if the very structure and nature of the assemblies continue to be strengthened by ever greater participation; presently, precarious and unemployed workers, futureless youth, and pauperised pockets of the population in capitalist urban peripheries are largely absent from the movement. In the context of the dismantling of public services, it seems appropriate to create our own spaces of (de)education, our own centres and places of work, our own health centres, our own networks of production and distribution, our own spaces for gathering and political participation on the margins of capitalist circuits that appear already to be exhausted. Only to the extent that in the assemblies – as non-hierarchical spaces for horizontal decision making, public debate and the sharing of experiences – real agents are configured against and equal to the established powers, can it be said of the ingenuous dream that 15M appears to be, that it has acquired the virtues to make itself real.

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1. Democracia Real Ya and Juventude Sin Futuro were among the original collectives involved in the organization of the 15th of May protest in Madrid.
2. This rather barbaric neologism is coined to capture the spanish term, ciudadanismo, which refers to an ideology and/or movement that promotes the “ideals”, “values” of citizenship as a political project.
3. The Socialist government with the Partido Popular voted a reform to the country’s constitution (07/09/2011), adding the inclusion of a cap on the state’s deficit (to take effect in 2020 and with the agreement between the two Parties that the deficit should not be greater than 0.4% of GDP) and explicitly stipulating that interest and principal payments have priority over any other state expenditure.
4. The name by which the Barcelona okupation came to be known.

 

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