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The indignados make change contagious


May 8, 2012 / The Guardian

The iconic Spanish bull sadly reduced in stature by artist Sam3 from Murcia.
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The iconic Spanish bull sadly reduced in statue by artist Sam3 from Murcia.

The recurring image of the indignados – the Spanish movement that protested 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.

democracy is a living being; something you do, not something you have

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

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

The Spanish 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 plazas, and the smaller devolved local assemblies that the indignados created after they spread into neighbourhood after neighbourhood last year, embody forms of participatory democracy.

the economic crisis was also a political crisis

And in the wider context of loss of political legitimacy in Europe, where decisions are made by technocratic meetings filled with finance officials and austerity is being locked into the EU consitution with the new Fiscal Compact that delivers a body blow to the model of the European welfare state – 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 from their beginning, the mood of the indignados is more sombre and mature, with a real sense of the difficulty of the endeavour and the stakes involved. The movement will return to the streets in a three day encampment in Puerta del Sol in Madrid and in other 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”.

“not one more euro to rescue the banks”

This is in a context of palpable rising frustration and anger among the general population, where a bailout for Spain is looking ever more likely. Savage cuts mean those over 26 who have never paid into the social security system (that includes all illegal immigrants) are denied free health care, 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 €7 to €10 billion of public money. Many people who would not normally particpate in social action are reaching the limits of their tolerance, and the protests will be huge.

Meanwhile repression by the state is increasingly fierce. Police shooting rubber bullets during the recent general strike in Barcelona caused two people to lose eyes, and gave another a ruptured spleen. A proposed new 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 a minimum of two years.

“We refuse to lose the rights we once fought so hard for.”

Recent attempts to criminalise the movement have been met with the trending hashtag on Twitter, #HolaDictadura (“Hello Dictatorship”). The Transition from the 1970s out of Franco’s dictatorship means that many in the country retain the historical memory that democracy is something you have to defend, that it is something it is possible to lose. As social rights that took decades of struggle to win 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, not public debt – and their demand for a universal basic rent offers a real critique of current policy. Bailing out citizens rather than the banks might at least circulate money in the economy, in contrast to banks given public money who have not started lending.

Meanwhile, the Platform for those Affected by Mortage Default has not just been resisting evictions with direct action and campaining for a moratorium on foreclosures, but as their spokesperson Ada Colau explains, demanding “a social audit that, following the example of Iceland, investigates who was responsible for the housing bubble and especially clarify who were the main beneficiaries and where all the money has gone”.

The indignados are not just looking at what has gone wrong, but beginning the attempts to construct concrete alternatives on the ground. They have published a Manual of Economic Disobedience, and are working on solutions that return economic control into local hands. Over 200 time banks exist across the country, with an estimated five new ones springing up a month, and 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 actually 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.