When we thought that we had all of the answers, suddenly, all of the questions changed.
Five years on and the 15th of May movement in spain remains a point of confluence for many who imagine and act for a world against and beyond the violence of capitalism.
The name the movement bears is a coincidence of calendar and significantly so, for what was born on the 15th of May 2011 was a less a movement, with a formal structure, a leadership, a binding ideology, than a way of doing politics, based on horizontal, self-managed assemblies. And what 15M has struggled for, its goals, have been elaborated and re-defined with each step, not by one person, but by many; not in one direction, but in many.
The original demonstration called for in 2011 in Madrid was placed under the slogan, “We are not merchandise in the hands of politicians and bankers”. Thousands came into the street that day and with nightfall, some 30 people decided to camp in the Puerta del Sol square. Violently evicted by the police in the early morning of the 17th, the response was an even larger demonstration and a permanent occupation that would last for a month, and spread to hundreds of cities and towns throughout the country and beyond. The “Arab Spring” and Iceland were in the background as a source of inspiration and Syntagma Square in Athens and Zucotti Park in New York would soon follow.
In the context of spain, 15M was the largest social mobilisation since what is known in the country as the “Transition” from the Franco dictatorship to some kind of “formal democracy” and what would follow in its in wake was a massive policisation of many and the re-politicisation of others. “We were sleeping and we awoke.”
At the heart of the movement were the assemblies that sprouted up in every occupation, in turn multiplying within the camps as different working groups and thematic commissions arose. In the assembly, speech was liberated, as everyone could speak freely and as equals. Horizontally structured, open, refusing spokespersons or leaders, they would become the vehicles through which 15M would create itself and the image-reality of the world that it desired. “They don’t reperesent us!”, another of the movement’s slogans echoed the earlier slogan of the Argentinian rebellion of 2001 against that country’s ruling political caste, “Que se vayan todos!”/”That they all go!”, and was interpreted as a rejection of the current generation of politicians who sat in spain’s parliaments, but carried the seed with the assemblies of a far more radical rejection of all political representation.
For many, among whom the academics of social movements and the paternalistic leaders of political parties and vanguards (including many anarchists in spain), it would be this very openness and plurality that would condemn the movement to political irrelevance, or worse, compromise with the “system”.
But together with the deliberation through assemblies would come the inevitable confrontation. And the movement courageously assumed it.
The authorities would initially ridicule and dismiss 15M, the commercial mass media would distort it, but its persistence, its unpredictability and its simple refusal to accept existing public order invited more robust intervention. Direct police repression would be essayed on the 27th of May against the acampada of the Plaça Catalunya in Barcelona. Yet despite the violence hurled against the occupiers, with over a hundred people injured, the camp would resist.
And more generally, the State’s violence brought ever greater expressions of disobedience. Protest demonstrations would proliferate. The catalan 15M would surround and block the region’s parliament to prevent the voting of an austerity budget. Thousands of people would place their bodies between the police and individuals and families threatened with eviction, giving enormous power to an organisation known as the PAH (Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca) whose anti-eviction campaign began in 2010 and which until 15M was able to stop some twenty evictions. Today it counts over 2,000 evictions blocked, along with hundreds of occupations of empty, bank or government owned, houses for putting up the evicted and homeless, checking the power of the banks. A militant student movement would erupt in the spring of 2012 in Valencia, against proposed education reforms. The general strikes of March and November of 2012 would overflow the limits of a traditional labour strike to become social strikes that aspired to bring cities to a stop. On the 25 of September, 2012, the spanish congress, the country’s parliament, would be surrounded.
The surrounding of the Catalan Parliament …
The PAH …
Primavera Valenciana …
The general strike of the 14th of November, Madrid …
Surrounding congress, the 25th of September, 2012 …
Disobedience extended into the everyday, with the refusal to pay fares on public transportation, motorways, and so on. It would touch publicly bailed out banks, with the picketting and occupation of bank branches. Political elites were hounded in the streets and their houses picketted in escraches. Long empty buildings were occupied as spaces for social centres and empty lots became neighbourhood gardens. And other protest movements of students, pensioners, different professionals groups (e.g., the mareas), strikes, would converge with 15M.
Without this being anywhere an exhaustive chronicle, 15M would, through these and other acts/events, raze to the ground a whole system of established values and political practices and thereby lay the bases for the creation of alternative realities of collective mutual aid which have proliferated at the margins of and within existing capitalist society. The radical politicisation of resistance has in other words been paralleled by an awareness that it is possible for communities of people to create and manage themselves and for themselves other social realities.
The repression in turn became more refined, with the ley mordaza/gag law of 2015 making any unauthorised public dissidence illegal and prohibiting many of the types of protests that had developed under the inspiration of 15M. (There are today some 40,000 individuals who have been sanctioned under the new law). And as the original march that led to 15M was illegal, 14 of those involved in its organisation are being prosecuted by the spanish state and are threatened with a cumulative punishment of 74 years in prison. (El Pais 15/05/2016) On the margins, radical labour unionists, activists of different political expressions, and anarchists have been increasingly targetted under broad anti-terrorist legislation (e.g., Operations Pandora, Piñata, and the like).
It would be wrong to speak of 15M today as it was in its first years. Judging only from what can be observed in Madrid (though other cities seem to present similar scenarios, or worse), the assemblies have weakened or disappeared. The most publicly visible activists are mired in “civic/citizen centred” initiatives (e.g., demands for a guaranteed universal minimum income, a judicial review of the legitimacy of the country’s debt, legal proceedings against those who caused/benefited from the 2008 crisis, and the like) and a great many have been pulled towards institutional politics, at local levels (e.g., Madrid and Barcelona) and nationally through Podemos and affiliated parties. However such politics are far from exhausting 15M, as is testified to by the scale of the march in Madrid on the occasion of the fifth anniversary and more importantly by the great variety of political activities, collectives, organisations that 15M helped give birth to or contributed to: a kind of archipelago of living, autonomous spaces that constitute a powerful fabric of social relations that are the embryo of a non-capitalist world.
On the 15th of May of 2011, a seed was planted. The plant that grew from it spread its roots just below the surface of the global spectacle, in a sub-soil of the imaginary, that today continues to multiply. Whatever rebellion or revolution is imaginable today will spring from such roots.
From a 2016 manifesto of 15M …
The struggle without borders is the only path
After five years of living 15M in our squares, we have received from the french mobilisations the inspiration that will make us unstoppable. France unites as we have united and as others have done and as we hope will continue throughout the world.
This 15th of May, we celebrate much more than our fifth anniversary; we celebrate that we continue on our feet, following the path; that the struggle continues and it will be anti-capitalist, feminist, ecological, free of party afiliation, horizontal … and global.
In this year we have accomplished many things weaving our networks. We have dismantled their lies and pushed against the ropes bankers and their gag laws. We have invested the streets and liberated more spaces, stopped more evictions, but above all, we have continued to sow solidarity and mutual aid to be able to achieve much more still. This May of 2016, we will be in the squares of the whole world, and from there anything can be done.