#Spanishrevolution: Real Democracy Now

By Iker Barbero · 31 August 2011

It may seem bizarre that from its beginnings in March 2011, ‘Democracia Real Ya’ (DRY) – ’Real Democracy Now’ – could burst so dramatically into the public sphere with a series of demonstrations all across Spain. This has been particularly shocking in political and academic circles where the meaning of the concept of democracy is constantly being debated and revised. On the one hand, many movements, both on the left and the right, proclaim themselves to be the saviour of this errant society, acting in the name of a pure democracy. On the other hand, the simple act of requiring an immediate horizontalisation of politics could conflict with current deliberative processes and policy discussions.

It is clear from the high level of social mobilisation it has inspired that DRY has expressed the feelings of ordinary people who can no longer support a political class whose decisions, far from resolving a crisis, have left more than four million workers unemployed; passed social cuts; rescued banks; and continue to support the economic and institutional representatives who caused all these disasters in the first place. 

On top of this, the images of thousands of people in Iran, Egypt, Syria, Morocco and Libya, joining marches through the streets, occupying squares and facing up to military and despotic dictatorships were a demonstration of popular and democratic activism; one which disproved orientalist assumptions that such acts of citizenship were alien to these countries. The repressed civil societies of Islamic countries were giving a lesson in the struggle for dignity and democracy to a ‘West’ mostly blinded by the compulsive consumption of television. The news from Tahrir Square and many other places, images of the hands and fists of hundreds of women and men waving in protest or pictures of demonstrators holding banners of Che Guevara flooded Twitter, Facebook and other digital platforms. Activists in Europe anxiously awaited the call to the barricades.

The run-up to municipal, regional and provincial elections in Spain was the perfect time to strike against the politicians. And indeed, many of them, especially the ‘socialist’ PSOE party, became increasingly nervous that DRY’s call for abstention in the elections, would ironically bring undecided and sporadic PSOE voters into the streets rather than to the ballot boxes. Of course, the conservative PP was delighted with this. And if riot police could clear some ‘lousy reds’ from the streets, that would be a perfect end.

Thus, the legal and political machinery of Power soon started working. The electoral, local, regional and central courts span the argument that banning demonstrations would defend the right of citizens to enjoy a free campaign, preserve them from radical inputs and guarantee a day of pure reflection. There were even some politicians, for example in Barcelona, who tried to legitimise indiscriminate, violent, and possibly illegal evictions under the pretext of preparing for the hypothetical future victory of a football team.

The point is that DRY, and the subsequent evolution of the movement towards 15 de Mayo (15th May), 15-M or Indignados (outraged), became one of the largest popular demonstrations in recent Spanish history. We can not and must not forget the demonstrations in 2002 and 2003, against the war or, under the slogan ’Nunca Mais’ (‘Never Ever’ in Galician), in protest over the handling of the ecological disaster on the Galician coast and all around the Bay of Biscay. But the popular cry of ’another politics is possible’ drove the multitude to act in mass meetings all around the Iberian Peninsula. Tahrir's spirit was in the Plaza del Sol in Madrid, in Plaza Catalunya in Barcelona, in Plaza Arriaga of Bilbao and many others. On the social network Twitter, ’#Spanishrevolution’ gained followers across borders, in cities such as London, Paris, Berlin, Milan, Prague, New York, Sydney and many other parts of the world where people also felt solidarity with the movement, and at some stage, shared its sense of outrage; some of them probably due to the disappointment of an unpromising job market and the prospect of forced emigration.

But perhaps what distinguishes the 15-M from previous mobilisations is the revulsion towards the politicians, union-organisers and government officials. The motto ’they do not represent us’, while expressing disappointment, also became a description of practice. Aside from particular charismatic speakers and a handful of inflated egos, participants at the meetings went as individuals rather than as representatives of any organisation or social movement. The role made the speaker: unemployed; students skeptical of the future; workers at risk of redundancy; pensioners constantly threatened with pension cuts; anti-Franco fighters who would like to be remembered; and illegalised immigrants.

‘They do not represent us’ does not mean that the assemblies and meetings had no pretence of democracy. Their democracy was not representative but direct and participatory. The movement had its general assemblies in public spaces, mechanisms of internal organisation and operational debates, with rules (guidelines) intended to energise meetings and commissions, and to preserve peaceful coexistence inside the camps.

The possibility of violence was always there. It was almost anxiously anticipated by the media and it also stirred amongst those assembled. The brutal police eviction of Plaza Catalunya in Barcelona and the subsequent attempt to occupy the Catalan parliament were evidence of this simmering. Yet, although activists reiterated their commitment to civil disobedience and peaceful resistance, the image of demonstrators confronting the police led many politicians and media commentators to question the legitimacy of the movement because of the spectre of possible violence with images of May 1968 in the Latin Quarter. This has once again exposed the fragile relationship between power and violence and between legitimacy and illegality.

After several months of occupation and camping in the streets of many cities, the movement has evolved. The Winter Palace was not taken and now the squares are mostly empty. But the movement is still alive through actions of popular resistance: struggling against the eviction of people who can not bear the weight of their mortgage; stopping the detention and deportation of foreigners who lack documentation; demonstrating on 19th June against the Euro Pact and 23rd July; and the neighbourhood assemblies that are still taking place. As it said in Spanish, ‘la lucha sigue’ (the struggle continues)!

Gaps and inconsistences are inherent in most social movements. Moreover, not every complaint and attitude that makes up a social movement is consistent with its transformative claims, and not every social movement makes such claims. That said, 15-M has been one more essential step in the long struggle for another way of democracy, another kind of relationship between politics and society, in short, another way of citizenship.

Learn more about: Orientalising citizens

About the author

  • Iker Barbero

    Research Associate
    Iker Barbero
    The Open University
    After my MA at the International Institute for the Sociology of Law (2003/2004) I completed a PhD in Law at the University of the Basque Country (March 2010). My thesis, titled “Towards new... Read more

Oecumene: Citizenship after Orientalism is funded by an European Research Council (ERC) Advanced Grant (Institutions, values, beliefs and behaviour ERC-AG-SH2).

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