Tahrir Square comes to Madrid

published in Weekly Worker, 2nd June 2011

“Rallies are boring,” said one activist characteristically at the ‘open organising assembly for June 30 strikes’ in central London. The May 23 meeting may have been attended by more than 100 activists from various tendencies, but it was certainly decentralised direct action groups such as UK Uncut that set the tone. Particularly visible in recent months through their spectacular occupations of banks, Topshop outlets and the like, the group is a pole of attraction to the freshly radicalised, and there can be little doubt that many of them will stick around for a while.

“One of the most respectful, dynamic and inspirational meetings in a long time” is how one activist described the meeting in retrospect. This was true in that the room was buzzing with rapid-fire ideas, ‘jazz hands of agreement’, and a consensus-driven, Zabriskie point-style atmosphere very much to the taste of the largely student crowd (as well as the odd survivor from the class of 1968). It was also true that there was no sectarian squabbling between the various tendencies, the implicit notion being that anarchists, communists, socialists and the less ideologically solid might cooperate as long as we keep our politics to ourselves and stick to the lowest common denominator of opposing the cuts.[1]

Consequently, members of groups such as the Socialist Workers Party were careful not to push their agenda too aggressively, while others urged trespassers not to make it “too political”. The most frenetic eruptions of ‘jazz hands’, meanwhile, were reserved for a small handful of Spanish students who introduced themselves as London representatives of the Democracia Real Ya (Real Democracy Now) movement, sending some of those present into what appeared like a state of rapture. Inspired by the Arab spring, the movement has been staging permanent occupations of central squares in all major Spanish cities in the months leading up to the regional and local elections. Following their calls to “bring Egypt to London” earlier this year, groups such as Counterfire and the SWP have already begun placing their bets on this new social movement: “Bring the spirit of Spain to the streets of Britain,” exhorted Socialist Worker,[2] while ‘Real Democracy’ spin-off groups have been forming everywhere from France to Greece.

Echoing proclamations on Democracia Real Ya’s various websites and blogs, the Spanish students at the May 23 meeting made a point of declaring themselves to be a “totally non-violent” as well as “non-political” group. The latter is, to some extent, analogous to the attempts of the ‘open organising assembly’ hosts to preserve ‘unity’ by suppressing political differences. More crucially, though, it is the expression of a generation’s disenchantment with electoral politics – particularly in a country where the centre-left PSOE (Spanish Socialist Workers Party) and trade union bureaucrats have been either carrying through or in effect excusing the savage austerity programme. Translate this disenchantment into a generalised anti-political, anti-party stance, and you might just arrive at the notion that only a broad social movement operating at street level, uncontaminated by ‘ideologies’, might effect change. How exactly that will happen, nobody is sure.

‘Don’t know what I want, but I know how to get it: I wanna protest peacefully’, then, is how a cynic might sum up the ‘spirit of Spain’ in a song – perhaps ending on the chorus, ‘… ’cause I wanna be democracy’. The neurotically contrarian Spiked magazine poured nothing but scorn on the Spanish protestors, denouncing them as essentially apolitical kids who happen to enjoy a night out on the square. Much though the article smacked of the author’s indignation at the idea that the masses might start a protest movement without asking him for permission, he certainly had a few points, however. It is true that a ‘non-political’ or ‘anti-political’ stance will, sooner or later, lead any movement down a blind alley; instead of suppressing politics for the sake of unity at any cost, they should be brought out in the open, so that an effective strategy might be formulated.

It is not the job of communists, however, to grumpily stand on the sidelines or, worse still, attempt to “subsume or subdue”[3]spontaneous struggles, however theoretically naive they may initially appear. An elemental, vaguely anti-capitalist outbreak of anger at a bourgeois establishment that presently condemns more than 21% of the Spanish population to unemployment, the Real Democracy movement is a justified and positive development.

Moreover, one would have to be completely blinded by dogmatism not to appreciate the high level of organisation and cooperation on display at Madrid’s Plaza del Sol. From communal cooking and educational/debating groups and spontaneously established free public libraries, the scenario portrays an intuitive communism wholly at odds with what we are being told all our lives: that human nature is intrinsically selfish and territorial. Likewise, the fact that the word ‘democracy’ is put up for open-ended debate in a nominally democratic western hemisphere is a welcome step forward – particularly so in a climate in which imperialism is scrambling to import its own idea of ‘democracy’ into the rapidly changing Arab world.

What communists can offer such spontaneous movements is a coherent theoretical outlook to “give voice to their various concerns within the framework of a comprehensive theory”, as Karl Kautsky referred to Marx’s work in the First International – even if that entails facing the same difficulties that the early Marxians confronted and weeding out the same petty bourgeois ideas and non-solutions all over again. After all, our goal is to make the dream enacted in the Plaza del Sol become reality and not just an ephemeral, utopian adventure.

As the history of 20th and early 21st century anti-capitalist movements demonstrates, the same old ideas tend to reappear again and again in new guises, inevitably condemning their followers to repeat the mistakes that had rendered their predecessors politically impotent first time around.[4]
Nowhere is this truer than with cross-class, politically diverse ‘social movements’ and tendencies that advocate political abstentionism.[5] In my interview below, it is apparent that a political party which provides the collective memory of the class is indispensable if we do not wish to get caught up in perfectly avoidable dead ends. For the left, to uncritically herald every new movement as ‘showing the way’ or to pander to an anti-political consensus in the hope of signing up a few dozen recruits is irresponsible and short-sighted – to critically engage with these movements, on the other hand, is imperative.

On the weekend of May 28, just a week after the conservative Partido Popular’s victory in the local elections, I visited some 30 activists at the Spanish embassy in Knightsbridge, where they had been camping in solidarity with the protests in their native country. They referred me to Esther, who acts as the London-based press spokesperson for Democracia Real Ya. Together with a chap simply known as Hugo, Esther was recently touted by the Education Activist Network as one of the “main activists”[6] in what by and large appears to be a structureless movement.

I interviewed Esther the following day:

Can you tell us what you’re doing here?

We’ve been gathering in front of the Spanish embassy since May 15. For this weekend, we have organised a lot of camp activities and various workshops on democracy. We have also held general assemblies to decide where our movement is going and what steps to take next.

Have you had any hassle from the police?

On the first day the ambassador called the police, but we’ve been demonstrating peacefully and all they did was ask us how long we would be staying. They were always helpful – one morning at six o’clock whilst we were sleeping it started to rain, so they asked us if we’d like any hot water. So, no, there have been no problems at all.

Could you briefly sum up what Democracia Real Ya is all about?

There is demonstrably a failure in the political and economic status quo, so we are demanding a complete change in the democratic system and in the financial system. We are protesting against the unjust policies of the politicians and bankers that have led to a catastrophic situation.

How did it all start – did your movement arise spontaneously or was there a lot of planning beforehand?

Originally there were two protest movements that started in several Spanish cities in mid-February. One of them was called Estado del Malestar, which means something like ‘badfare state’, the opposite of ‘welfare state’; the other one was called Juventud Sin Futuro (Youth Without Future). Together, these two movements began organising flashmobs and awareness drives in the main town squares of Spain.

They decided to call for a big demonstration on May 15, just one week before the general election. It was much larger than anticipated and people thought spontaneously: ‘There are so many of us here. We have to make the most of it while we’re still awake. We cannot just leave the square now, so let’s set up camp and talk.’ So the original plan was just to hold a protest on the 15th, but the decision to camp in the square arose spontaneously. This was the beginning of Democracia Real Ya.

How did the Spanish media react? Are you getting any sympathetic press?

There are many different reactions. There is one newspaper that portrays the movement in a realistic way, without distorting anything. The Spanish state media, equivalent to the BBC, hardly talk about us at all. And the far-right TV channels, such as Intereconomia TV, are just terrible. They simply portray us as hippies that enjoy gathering and camping in the street.

Reading through Democracy Real Ya leaflets, websites and blogs, I have noticed that you are making a point of being ‘non-political’. But how can a protest movement against the political and economic status quo be ‘non-political’?

We are political in the sense that we are making political demands, but we are non-political in the sense that some of us have very well-defined political ideologies, while others don’t have them at all. The main thing that has brought us together is the economic situation, especially rising unemployment. We are a generation that is very well educated, but is forced to emigrate because we don’t see a future in Spain. Sometimes we do focus on particular political issues and discuss them: for example, ‘What kind of state do we want?’ or ‘Do we want a republic or a monarchy?’ and so on.

One of your websites says that you have some people in your movement who would consider themselves progressive, while others would self-describe as ‘conservative’. How does that work? To be conservative means wanting to preserve the status quo that you say you oppose.

To be honest, I cannot speak in the name of the whole movement. Personally, I have a very well defined political point of view, but I can’t speak for everybody else. I can say, however, that we do work with movements who organise separately from ourselves: for example, yesterday we participated in the UK Uncut action.

Since you mention that, it seems that movements such as yours and UK Uncut are almost exclusively street-based, with a heavy emphasis on direct action and a certain level of distrust towards political organisations. But our opponents own media empires and can write whatever they want about us; they own the banks and industries; they have people in parliament and in the courts; and if it comes to the crunch they have a police force and the military at their disposal. Won’t it take a highly sophisticated political organisation, operating at all levels, to really challenge them?

Actually, right now a people’s assembly movement exists which truly is a movement of the people. We don’t want to form a political party because of the mixture of political views within it. There are other groups in countries such as France, Greece and Portugal who have the same demands as us and with whom we are coordinating our actions internationally. We have foreign affairs sections in all of our groups. As for media representation, we prefer to pass information directly to each other via web-based social networks – Facebook, Twitter and so on – because we don’t want anybody to manipulate our information. In the media, you will always have a little bit of manipulation.

Many say that the student protests, UK Uncut and Democracy Real Ya resemble the student movement of 1968. Now 1968 must have been a very exciting time and left a cultural imprint, but it posed no effective challenge to the political and economic power structures. It all just faded out.

Maybe I’m too optimistic, but I think – or I hope – that this is going to take us somewhere. We’re not just students; there are all kinds of people in Democracy Real Ya. We will organise under our own political agenda until next year’s general elections. We are going to ask solicitors for their advice on using the law to eventually change the constitution. These are only ideas and drafts, but during the summer they will all have to be decided and voted upon. We will then present all our demands to the politicians; we really hope to make changes before the next general election.

In your manifesto you say, “The political class isn’t even listening to us.” But if they started to listen to your demands and agreed to take a hard line on corruption, tackle unemployment and even think about proportional representation, would that be enough?

We don’t want promises: we want facts. We have heard many, many promises, and we are fed up with them. So until we see the facts we will continue. We want this movement with all its grassroots proposals and demands to be active in creating a new constitution. The existing constitution was approved in 1977 – two years after Franco died – in a very unstable environment. Because there was the fear of a coup by the far right at the time, it was an extremely conservative constitution that didn’t change the existing system that much.

But surely changing the constitution requires real political organisation and a political party?

It doesn’t necessarily need to be a political party. It can be a big movement that decides in assemblies, which is a totally different concept. We are not talking about trade unions or political parties here. We are talking about something completely new: people’s assemblies.

There have been a lot of big social movements that were insufficient to change things. Take the massive anti-Iraq war movement in 2003: the war went ahead anyway. There were also ‘people’s assemblies’ at the time, not to mention the ‘non-political’ European and World Social Forums, which didn’t go anywhere.

There are so many indigenous and environmentalist people’s assembly movements in Latin America. That’s the way they have been organising all the time. If it works in Latin America, why shouldn’t it work here?

As for the Iraq war, the vast majority of the Spanish population were against it. Some conservative politicians even left the Partido Popular when it decided that Spain should join the war effort. They said, you are not listening to the people; nobody wants to go to Iraq but you. Back then, the Socialist Party, which was the main opposition party at the time, was at the head of the anti-war demonstrations, but, now that they are in power, they are the ones selling weapons to Africa. They were only against the Iraq war because it was convenient for them at the time.

What about the other left parties in Spain, such as the ex-communist United Left?

Yes, there is Izquierda Unida and also the new Izquierda Anticapitalista, the ‘Anti-Capitalist Left’ party.

How many people are protesting in Spain right now?

In Barcelona and Madrid alone there have been 25,000.[7]

If all these activists were organised in a single party, they could pose a serious political challenge.

But that’s impossible because politically we’re so diverse. Initially at the Madrid assembly many demands were made. What they were trying to do was reach an agreement on everything. So what came out of that assembly were the four demands that you’ve read. And unfortunately, they’re really nothing – they’re so vague that it’s almost impossible for anybody to disagree with them: separation of powers, fighting corruption, and so on. They don’t commit you to anything …

So, speaking for yourself, what is your end goal? Do you want to reform the system and commit the economic and political elites to more fairness and transparency? Or do you want to do away with these elites and the system altogether?

Yes, of course I want a different system. If we only repair things here and there, that’s not going to change much. We’ve seen that this system has failed, so we can’t just change a few policies: we need a real revolutionary change. And actually I want to highlight that at a Spanish level we can only change very little. We have to do it at a European level, because a lot of economic policies come from the European Union. And what’s even more important: we have to abolish and change institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

I agree with you. Many left organisations think that withdrawing from the EU is the solution. But nationalism is an illusion.

Yes, I don’t think it’s good to isolate yourself. The best thing to do is to join forces internationally and, once we have identified who the enemy is, fight him together.

Well, reading through your manifesto,  it seems you have already identified the enemy. Phrases like ‘‘the dictatorship of the major economic powers through the main political parties” and “an obsolete and unnatural economic model” surely refer to the capitalist system?

I can only answer this in personal capacity, not on behalf of the movement. You know what I’m really for? I’m for downshifting. Everybody should work less hours so there are jobs for everybody and at the same time consume less and less every day. Have you read Serge Latouche? He’s the main economist for this theory, and he wants us to return to a much more basic and easy way of life that is more in contact with nature.

This sounds like he wants us to return to a pre-capitalist or early capitalist stage rather than move beyond capitalism.

Oh no, it’s a system of sharing everything together. Capitalism promotes working as much as you can so you can own as much as you can, so these demands run contrary to capitalism.

You make a point of being a non-violent movement. Is that a moral principle or a tactical choice?

It’s a choice, because violence always generates more violence. Personally, I completely reject violence as a matter of principle because I think that we should not make the same mistakes that the governments that use violence against us are making. We have endless debates about violence in the movement, though, and there are many different views on that. Therefore, I would rather not speak on everybody else’s behalf.

It’s important to us communists that democracy has class content. Is class something that you talk about in the movement – do you want all classes to cooperate, or do you have a class agenda?

We want to work as people with no differences between us. The people – that’s everybody.

Who or what is your biggest inspiration – any historical figures or events?

When I was volunteering for a human rights organisation in Mexico, I met an environmentalist activist who I thought was amazing. She is not famous or anything, but she and some other activists I worked with have been such an inspiration to me. I don’t admire any historic figure in particular – there are just so many people that have made a great contribution to the world … maybe the Spanish republicans who had to flee the country in Franco’s time and who ended up in Nazi concentration camps in France.

Do you see any similarities between Democracy Real Ya and the Spanish anarchists of the 1930s?

Actually, I see a lot of similarities between now and the beginning of the Second Spanish Republic. Before the elections, people started making demands and there was a lot of discontent among the population – so it was quite a similar moment.

One of your demands is for “real separation of powers”. Could you clarify what you mean by that?

You have got the executive, the legislative and the judiciary power. But in Spain the executive is really mixed with the judiciary because it’s the government that appoints and employs some of the judges. The executive overlaps with the other two powers and we want them to be totally independent. We don’t want the executive to control all the powers.

Do you see any dangers in the concept of the separation of powers? Imagine, for example, a political party that enjoys majority support and wants to pass a law for shorter working hours. If I was the CEO of Vodafone, I might make a small donation to my friends in the judiciary, who would then veto the law as unconstitutional interference with free enterprise.

But it is idealistic to think this will happen. In truth, if all the powers are represented by the same political party or one assembly, that’s too dangerous. Don’t you see more danger in that, when the ruling party can do whatever it wants because there’s a conjuncture of all powers in one body?

It couldn’t necessarily do what it wanted if the political representatives were recallable by the people at any time. But your manifesto calls for an “ethical revolution” – what would that entail?

An ethical revolution is a revolution of the mind. We have to implement democratic principles in people’s minds because most of them have never been at an assembly in their lives. They have never thought about being the sovereigns of their future. It is very important that we educate ourselves about different political systems and learn about politics.

I’ve noticed that you use ‘jazz hands of agreement’ at assemblies a lot. Does that mean you favour consensus decision-making?[8]

My group only just started calling assemblies two weeks ago and for the moment we are implementing the decisions of the majority. We only use the ‘jazz hands’ motion to imply agreement, and we will actually be having workshops on consensus and majority votes, where we will discuss the advantages and disadvantages of both. We haven’t yet decided which decision-making process we will use in the future.

Who wrote your manifesto?

The people at the assembly in Madrid wrote it.

Could you tell us something about the process by which a few thousand people create a document?

So far, it has always depended on the kind of decision that needed to be made. They have worked in little groups, each of which has a spokesperson. Then the speakers for the different groups meet up and put together all the decisions that the different groups had arrived at. Or, alternatively, everybody who was there makes decisions together. This will actually be the next step of our movement – to decide for which occasions we will work in little groups and for which we will take decisions as a whole.

Where is Democracia Real Ya heading?

So far, we have an agenda until the next general election. Generally speaking, our movement is only really starting now, but it has to continue until we achieve real change. I think it’s a slow process where things have to be done properly in order to be consistent. If you try to move too fast the movement might not last that long. That’s why we want to go little by little, step by step … but consistently.

We haven’t yet discussed what political direction we want to take, and I don’t think this is something that will be discussed any time soon. In the long term … maybe.

Notes

  1. Though certainly more creative in their application of the direct action credo than the po-faced poseurs of the anarchist black bloc, the commendable militancy of groups such as UK Uncut is not necessarily matched in radicalism by the political content of their actions. The austerity measures are “bad for economic growth”, we are told on the UK Uncut website. UK Uncut essentially limits its demands to taxing the living daylights out of banks and cracking down on corporate tax-dodging.
    The logical political conclusion to this approach is to call for a strongman centre-left government enforcing law and order against the ‘worst’ capitalists: ie, the kind of government that is the stuff of old Labour dreams. But can we realistically hope for any government, let alone the Miliband-led Labour government that would inevitably follow on the heels of a successful general strike, to implement such measures as long as capitalism exists? Was this, in fact, even the case in the ‘golden age’ of Labour, upward mobility and the welfare state? Ralph Miliband and John Saville’s 1964 essay, Labour policy and the Labour left, makes for an interesting read vis à vis such myths.
  2. ‘Spanish protests show the way … revolt against austerity’Socialist Worker May 28.
  3. See the lessons drawn from the Paris Commune by Nick Rogers in his article, ‘Inspirational feats and heroic failure’ Weekly Worker May 26.
  4. See M Macnair Revolutionary strategy p16.
  5. Ibid pp30-33.
  6. May 23 entry at educationactivistnetwork.wordpress.com
  7. In total, some 250,000 people came out to protest in 60 Spanish towns and cities on May 15.
  8. The classic text on this subject is Jo Freeman’s The tyranny of structurelessness , though it did not take long before voices from the current generation of protestors too began to express doubtsabout the questionably non-hierarchic consensus model.

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