Meanwhile in Spain: The indignados make change contagious

One year on, the Spanish indignados are offering practical ways to survive the economic crisis.

by Katharine Ainger on

The recurring image of the indignados, the Spanish movement that pro tested against the “economic dictatorship of the markets”, is a kind of democratic Mexican wave of upraised, waving hands. Rippling in a crowd of thousands, the emotion that moves with it can be charged and palpable.

This contagious symbol of agreement was used to build consensus in public assemblies as the movement erupted last year to occupy public spaces across Europe. It seems to say that democracy is a living being; something you do, not something you have, and that people are here to reclaim it.

This Saturday, 12 May, the waving hands of the indignados will return to the plazas of Spain, and the Mexican wave will ripple outwards as part of a day of action for the 99% in hundreds of cities worldwide, from Athens to Santiago.

The indignados grasped early on that the economic crisis was also a political crisis, and their struggle is for a fundamental renewal of democratic politics. While the markets can destroy livelihoods in milliseconds, the slow, halting meetings in the plazas, and the smaller local assemblies that spread from neighbourhood to neighbourhood, embody participatory democracy.

And in the wider context of loss of political legitimacy in Europe, where decisions are made at technocratic meetings of finance officials, and austerity is being locked into the EU constitution with the new fiscal compact – not to mention the rising appeal of the far right from France to Hungary to the Netherlands – their commitment to genuine democracy is more important than ever.

One year on, the mood is more sombre and mature, with a real sense of the difficulty of the endeavour and the stakes involved. A three-day encampment is planned for this weekend in Plaza del Sol in Madrid and other Spanish squares across the country to make visible their numbers and their demands. These include “not one more euro to rescue the banks”, “quality education and health” and “dignified and guaranteed housing”.

This is in a context of palpable rising frustration among the general population, as a bailout for Spain looks ever more likely. Youth unemployment is over 50%, university fees doubled, and Bankia, a bank with assets that come to almost a third of the Spanish economy, is about to receive between €5bn and €10bn of public money. Many people who would not normally participate in social action are reaching the limits of their tolerance, and the protests will be huge.

Meanwhile repression by the state is becoming increasingly fierce. Police use of rubber bullets during the recent general strike in Barcelona led to two people losing an eye and left another with a ruptured spleen. A proposed law would make it “an offence to breach authority using mass active or passive resistance against security forces and to include as a crime of assault any threatening or intimidating behaviour”, and simply blockading traffic or using social media to organise protest could land you in jail for two years.

Recent attempts to criminalise the movement have been met with the trending hashtag on Twitter, #HolaDictadura (Hello Dictatorship). The country retains the memory of the Franco years, and the understanding that democracy is something you have to defend, that it is something it is possible to lose. As rights that took decades of struggle to win back are being wiped away in moments, a group of activist grandparents who will be taking part in the 12 May protests invoke their long memories: “We refuse to lose the rights we once fought so hard for.”

The indignados are not just defending health, education and social security, or resisting bank bailouts. They are demanding a popular audit of the national debt – in fact many of Spain’s problems stem from toxic private debt, not public debt – and their demand for a universal basic rent offers a real critique of current policy.

The indignados are likewise beginning attempts to construct concrete alternatives to the present system. They have published a Manual of Economic Disobedience, and are working on solutions that return economic control into local hands. More than 200 time banks now exist across the country, with an estimated five new ones springing up a month. Local currencies, barter markets and networks of co-operatives are slowly developing.

Filling the gaps in the current system with these nascent alternatives not only offers practical ways for people to survive the crisis; they embody the fundamental idea of the indignados that democracy is something you do, not something you have. On the 12 May, they hope once more to make this idea globally contagious.