The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

The 15th of May Movement (the Indignados)

Jun 30, 2011

This report on the 15M Movement in Spain was translated from an article appearing in issue #137 of Lutte de Classe, the journal of French comrades in Lutte Ouvrière. It was written with the collaboration of comrades of Voz Obrera who are active in Seville.

For several weeks, the movement of the so-called indignados has widely expressed the anger of the Spanish population through the occupation of squares, big demonstrations and people’s assemblies. It is a real mass movement, which has mobilized tens of thousands of demonstrators throughout the country.

They took to the streets because one youth out of two is unemployed; because the only jobs available, including for students who have graduated, are temporary jobs, badly paid, with impossible schedules, at the beck and call of the boss; because housing is unaffordable; because the big companies lay off people and offer only precarious jobs.

It was an opportunity to say “enough!” (basta ya!). All the demonstrators who are fed up with quietly accepting the attacks know that they have nothing to hope for from the politicians and that they had to take to the streets. And they said that the governments that regularly alternate with each other bring nothing to the population and do not put forward any solution.

All this experience is important.

Their concerns mark the whole movement and also trace its limits. Their hostility to governmental political parties makes them respond to speeches praising a non-political stance or against political parties. Most demonstrators have hardly anything to refer to and are not sure about what they want, but on the contrary, others know perfectly what they do not want. That allowed for a lot of political maneuvers that marked all the steps of this movement and could very well weigh on its future.

The Beginning of the Movement

Starting on May 15, squares in dozens of cities have been occupied by thousands of young Spaniards.

They were expressing their “indignation” toward the corruption of the politicians, the incessant attacks against the laboring people, the dismantling of the public services, the evictions of those who no longer can pay their rent, the unemployment of young people, whether they have a degree or not, and badly paid temporary jobs.

Their initiative was inspired by what happened in Tunisia and Egypt: create a visible place in the center of the city of Madrid where demonstrators would stay permanently. The first acampada (encampment) in the Puerta del Sol in Madrid was imitated at once by people in Barcelona and Seville, then in all the other Spanish cities.

Between May 15 and June 15, thousands of Spanish youth settled into the acampadas in the squares and denounced corrupt politicians, unemployment, precariousness, housing problems, and they attracted the sympathy of millions of people whose feelings were expressed in slogans like: “They do not represent us,” “They call it democracy but it is not,” “Their crisis, we won’t pay.”

Those who had called for a demonstration on May 15, a week before the town hall and regional elections, may have been surprised by their huge success: almost 100,000 people in the streets of all the big cities! The call had been made by a whole range of groups who had been discussing on the Internet (Face Book, Twitter) for several months. At the beginning of the year, the exchanges multiplied and a gathering of Internet users created a movement called Democracia Real Ya (Real Democracy Now) and set up a list of demands. Democracia Real Ya used the slogan “get indignant,” from Stephane Hessel’s booklet titled “Get Indignant.” This booklet has been translated from the French into Spanish by an economist, Jose Luis Sampedro, linked with the Spanish group of ATTAC (anti-globalization activists). In the foreword of the booklet, Sampedro called on “citizens” to “stand up against indifference through a peaceful insurrection.” Hessel’s booklet and its foreword were a great success in the bookshops.

Militant Non-Politicalism

All this activity had set the tone from the beginning in the assemblies that took place starting the 15th of May; the movement soon called itself 15M.

Many students participated who had been active two years ago in the student strikes against privatization of the university—strikes that had lasted several weeks. There are also ATTAC sympathizers and a certain number of “ideologists” like Sampedro, whose program can be summarized in two points; “more democratic transparency is necessary” and “improvement of living conditions in Spain.”

These thousands of students or young people without a job or with a temporary one have every reason to be angry. But in expressing their anger, they were the first to say that the crisis was not a fatality. And they are the ones who set the tone for the movement.

They set the tone on the Internet and also in the streets with radical slogans and speeches. But they also set the tone, reflecting their prejudices against all political parties, their search for “consensus,” their pacifist vocabulary and even in the smallest detail, like for example the manner of approving or voting, agitating their hands in the air.

From the beginning, the assemblies established the principle that the movement was to be non-political and that those who present their ideas and propose their program seek to hijack the movement. Thus, in the demonstrations and in the assemblies, the least hint of a political label is booed.

In Seville, for instance, in the main demonstrations, representatives of the city assembly walked with posters warning: “Any text or political writing does not represent the movement.” And some youth would pursue anyone distributing a leaflet, shouting through their megaphone “beware of political hijacking.” An activist had to intervene vigorously against youth claiming to belong to 15M who attacked somebody distributing a leaflet in a demonstration in the Macarena neighborhood.

Young students had an activist from the assembly Parque Alcosa fold up his flag—the republican flag, which is the symbol of the struggle against Franco and his successor King Juan Carlos. The activist protested and ended up putting the flag on his shoulders saying, “Are you satisfied with that?”

During the June 19 demonstration in Seville, two youths acting as marshals tried to have an old well-known anti-Franco militant fold up this same flag. They had to withdraw when the inhabitants of the area gathered around him, protected him and chanted that slogan that everybody chants: “They call it democracy, but it is not.” But this time it was addressed to the two marshals.

This hunt against politics creates a permanent suspicion, allowing those who maneuver to impose their own politics.

This non-political stand, this demagogical anti-party attitude, in the name of citizen unity, reminded some militants of the so-called transition period in 1977, after Franco’s death. At that time, in the name of the non-political unity of the country, all the parties, including the Communist party, swore allegiance to the king (the successor Franco had prepared himself) and they shushed all the workers’ demands.

It is also a kind of non-political stand for the working class, like the one put forward when the socialists formed their government in the ‘80s. The “old wounds” were not to be reopened. The workers had to accept the necessary “reforms” and shut up!

It is that same tune that is sung today by those who want to channel anger into the praise for democracy—without touching any of those in power.

A Non-Political Leadership Which Imposes Its Policy

In the name of so-called “horizontal democracy,” the assemblies must seek consensus and therefore must debate up to the point when everybody agrees. The representatives of the assemblies must be changed each time, and those who chair the assembly must not take sides but only moderate who speaks.

Those principles result in assemblies being paralyzed by endless discussions that can decide only to prepare another discussion for the next assembly.

No coordination and no decision can be taken, no program can be voted in, and this discouraged a number of participants.

The city assemblies can operate in their area but they have no means to control what is decided on a national scale.

The leaders do not give any account of what they do and the “horizontal democracy” allows all sorts of vertical maneuvers!

It is what happened in the beginning with the debate about the platform of Democracia Real Ya, which was supposed to be used as a program.

This platform was read and approved of in numerous city assemblies. It consisted of eight points and was publicized right after the town hall and regional elections of May 22, which were lost by the Socialist Party.

This platform was inspired by Iceland! This little island with 320,000 inhabitants, which almost collapsed during the 2008 financial crisis, is often used as an example by the leaders of the Spanish, who say that the population said no twice in referendums to proposals to repay the debts, that the bankrupt banks were nationalized, that the currency was devalued, that politicians were defeated in the elections and that committees would draw up a new constitution. This is the model which was presented as being able to “renovate the Spanish democracy.”

The title of the platform was: “Here are a few measures that, as citizens, we consider as essential to regenerate our economic and political system. Approve them and propose yours!”

The first point dealt with “eliminating the privileges of the political class”: tight control over the absenteeism of elected people in their respective positions; sanction for abandoning their post; abolition of all their tax breaks and of privileges on the size of their pensions; their wages should not be above the average wage plus the expenses necessary to fulfill their function; eliminate their immunity; no time limit for prosecution for corruption; publicity about their holdings; reduction of the number of non-elected positions.

The second point was “against unemployment”: sharing the work through the shortening of the work week and negotiations with the bosses until the end of unemployment, that is, when it is less than 5%; 65 as the retirement age and no increase of this age until the end of the unemployment of young people; bonuses for the enterprises that employ fewer than 10% as temporary workers; job security; ban on layoffs in the big companies that post profits; penalties for companies which hire temporary workers in positions where they could hire permanent ones; reinstatement of the 426 euro allowance to all the long-term unemployed.

The third point dealt with housing, the idea being to take over the empty homes and to forbid evictions.

The fourth point asked for good quality public services; the fifth one was about control over the banks; the sixth one, about taxes; the seventh, about citizens’ rights and participatory democracy; and the eighth, about decreasing military spending.

All these points, even while seeming to be radical, involve “negotiable” measures.

Nonetheless, this platform clearly raises a certain number of problems which preoccupied all the demonstrators: how to resolve the unemployment and the lack of housing, how to stop the dismantling of public services, the role of the banks, the corruption of the politicians.

On May 28, an announcement was made to the city assemblies that a decision had been made to propose only those items that had been approved by consensus by the Madrid political commission. This reduced the platform to four points. Thus, the points concerning unemployment, the banks and housing disappeared.

The meeting of the Seville assembly on that day first heard from all those who wanted to discard the points dealing with unemployment and housing. Finally, an angry young man took the microphone and shouted: “If you suppress the point on unemployment, there will be no young person in my neighborhood who will follow us.”

About then, the movement of the acampadas launched the idea of creating neighborhood assemblies. These assemblies immediately started to meet in Madrid, then little by little in all the cities. They were pushed forward by militants, certainly, but they attracted people because of the label 15M on all the banners, leaflets and posters.

The assemblies, which met once a week, found themselves run by young people who said again and again that it was necessary to put aside political parties, search for consensus, rotate the leadership of the assemblies, etc.

The neighborhood assemblies were able to discuss everything they wanted. But, in fact, the leadership, which was “consensual” but also hidden from the 15M movement, had clearly defined its priorities: to put off until later demands about ending unemployment, about the corruption of the banks, about the lack of housing; and to concentrate on what was “negotiable” within the existing political system: an electoral reform and changes in the law concerning housing and employment.

On May 29, in an article entitled, “15M the New Utopia Has Its Feet on the Ground,” the Socialist Publico wrote: “The experts and the leaders of the left agree on the fact that the phenomenon of the ‘indignados’ has some impact and that the majority of its propositions are viable.

A box on the page then listed the four “consensual proposals” that the Madrid political commission had issued:

1. Electoral law: electoral reform allowing a more representative democracy with true proportionality, and allowing the development of mechanisms for citizen participation.

2. Corruption: fight against corruption in order to arrive at total political transparence.

3. Power: effective separation of powers.

4. Citizen control: creation of mechanisms for citizen control aimed at requiring true political responsibility.

The box included this statement: “These four consensual points are ratified by the assemblies of the ‘political commission’; but there are other commissions that function: economy, surrounding milieu, social rights, education and culture.”

To know how the famous “other commissions” function, one would have to read hundreds of pages on the internet sites of these other commissions, which in each city elaborate multitudes of projects.

One of the leaders of Democracia Real Ya summed up very well for Publico his group’s attitude when he wrote: “Some of our proposals lack rigor and logic, now we ask for help from experts.

At the assembly of Seville on June 17, a representative from a workers’ neighborhood reported that his neighborhood assembly had unanimously voted a resolution calling for work to be divided up among everyone without any cut in wages, and for layoffs to be prohibited. When he asked the Seville city assembly to vote the same resolution and raise the problem of the fight against unemployment in all the neighborhoods, the assembly was interrupted. A quarter of an hour later, a member of the “commission of work” arrived to say that he considered the people who made such proposals irresponsible, since the commission was in the middle of working out with lawyers some “serious propositions, acceptable to everyone.”

In June the Mobilization Continued

Up to then, the movement was not systematically preoccupied with experts; it carried on its own activities. And it attracted people in the neighborhoods who wished to organize themselves to act against situations they could no longer accept. And there were actions all during the month of June.

In the middle of June, the newly elected right-wing politicians who took over their city hall positions in the big cities were everywhere booed by groups identifying themselves as 15M.

Little incidents in Barcelona had allowed the right and the PSOE to push a campaign, widely picked up by the media. The axis of the campaign was simple: the nice people of the May 15 movement had been replaced by the violent ones of June.

The politicians and the press tried to equate the demonstrators in Barcelona with the ETA (the Basque nationalists reputed to be terrorists). The leaders of the movement repeatedly insisted on their pacifist principles, their declarations taken up and repeated in all the neighborhood assemblies.

But the enormous demonstrations of June 19, which passed without incident, closed down all discussion on the subject.

The hundreds of assemblies continue to meet in the name of 15M, on the plazas, in numerous neighborhoods. They are organized, but they risk discouraging people if initiatives aren’t launched and a program defined.

For now, they are tied together at the level of each city in a “commission of the neighborhoods,” and they feel themselves attached to a larger national movement, whose actions get a lot of coverage by the media—actions against evictions, marches coming together from various cities, feeding into Madrid. It’s also possible a referendum may be organized on the four points to “improve democratic representation.

Needed: A Policy for the Working Class

The 15M movement has undoubtedly changed the situation in Spain. Never before have so many people felt themselves in solidarity, happy to demonstrate massively and to shout out their anger.

Obviously, this opens possibilities—but under the condition that inside this movement of young people, workers and the unemployed there are people ready to pass from indignation over to a fight against capitalism.

Because the bourgeoisie continues and is going to continue to attack the workers. Layoffs are continuing in companies that post billions of profits each year.

Plant closings have been announced by Alsthom in Barcelona and Visteon in Cadiz. New laws on “flexibility” and local contracts deliver the workers, tied hand and foot, to the bosses. Public services are going to be privatized, and there will be layoffs. The bosses’ organization, the CEOE, demands even more.

Facing attacks from the government and the bosses, which continued all through May and June, the main unions—the Workers Commissions and the UGT—organized demonstrations, notably Wednesday June 22 against the “europact.” A new one-day general strike is to be called for October. The one-day strike of September 29, 2010 was a success, but then several weeks later, the union leadership agreed to increase the legal retirement age from 65 to 67!

Many of the young people who participated in the 15M movement know what they reject, but that’s all, they don’t go further. The fact that they reject the bourgeois political parties is a step forward, but to reject all politics is to imprison the movement in very narrow limits; it amounts to, in fact, complaining to the political representatives of the capitalists, asking them to take into account the aspirations of the workers and the unemployed and to exploit them a little less.

But those who rule this society—the politicians standing at the front of the stage, and those who pull their strings from behind, the bankers and bosses—are getting ready to exploit workers even more. They know very well that their greed and their cynicism arouses indignation. And they laugh about it!

Their problem is simple: there is a crisis, and they intend to make laboring people pay for it.

Facing this policy of the bourgeoisie, the exploited classes need a policy that allows them to really fight back. Fight back to refuse layoffs, to protect their purchasing power, to obtain or keep a home.

Indignation is not enough.

The point is to fight against an adversary who is determined, organized, prepared and who is going to strike harder and harder blows. For this fight, it’s necessary to have goals, know how to achieve them, to go forward and to lean on the only force that is able to change everything, those who work every day in the workplaces—the workers.

Those who refuse this policy do not want the movement to mature and to develop. They want to stifle it.

When we meet, demonstrate, think over together, we can gain confidence, and we can see and judge who are our true enemies and our false friends. As soon as we move, there is hope, but it is necessary above all to be conscious that the offensive of the bourgeoisie against the exploited classes is going to worsen, that there is a tough struggle that awaits the world of labor.

For the combat to come, the bourgeois class already knows what it wants, it has its general staff, it prepares its blows, it is maneuvering, it uses its politicians and it attacks, mocking people’s indignation.

Faced with such an enemy, the laboring classes will not be able to fight back if they retreat into non-politicalism. The working class must prepare itself to launch a political and social fight, to be political, to carry out a policy that defends its own interests, a policy that is not content just to disagree and protest, but launches a fight to change the economy, to change the society.

Postscript, October 30, 2011:

On October 15th, several hundred thousand people demonstrated in over 60 cities throughout Spain. There were some 50,000 demonstrating in Madrid and even more in Barcelona. There were 40,000 in Seville and San Sebastian.

The movement of the “Indignados” in Spain, which developed six months ago, continues to denounce the disgusting policies of the capitalists, the bankers and the politicians who serve them. But, under the pretext of not introducing divisions in their movement, those who organize the “Indignados” continue to insist that politics can’t be discussed, wanting in fact to silence those who dare to call themselves communists or anarchists. The unending, confused debates of the last general assembly in Madrid, which was organized after the October 15 demonstrations, shows the impasse of this pretended apolitical stance, which is hypocritical. It aims at leaving the political field open for those who would be “indignant,” but who don’t want to put in question the capitalist system.

The May 15th Movement, as it is called, has the merit of encouraging protest and above all of having brought hundreds of thousands of people out to protest. But they need more—to find objectives for themselves for the struggles of tomorrow and, more precisely, a political perspective.