Iker Itoiz Ciaurriz – Spain’s Indignados Movement: the first twenty-first century utopia

On 15 May 2011, a mass demonstration was held in Madrid. Thousands of young people marched in the centre of Madrid, demanding jobs, better economic conditions and ‘real democracy’. The Indignado movement was born. What has become of it?

Iker Itoiz Ciáurriz is a PhD student in History at the University of Edinburgh. His interests broadly concern Twentieth-century European history and current European politics

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The occupation of Puerta del Sol Square in 2011

The evening of the 4th of May turned out to be a dramatic night for the Spanish left. Isabel Diaz Ayuso, leader of the PP (People’s Party – Conservative Party), won an outstanding victory. Her campaign presented Podemos, the anti-austerity party born from the grass-root ‘indignados movement’, now partnered with Spain’s communists, as Unidas Podemos, a bogeyman that radicalised central government. Ayuso claimed that her policy of allowing bars to remain open during much of the pandemic had made Madrid the freest and happiest place in Spain. Ayuso, called the Spanish Trump, presented the election as a choice between ‘freedom or communism’. On the electoral night, the left suffered a huge defeat. Just as Britain’s supposed ‘red wall’ of Labour-voting northern seats fell to the Tories in 2019, so too did Madrid’s ‘red ring’ of working-class suburbs voting for the right-wing policies of Ayuso and the PP on Tuesday. Seven years after revolutionising Spanish politics by founding Podemos (Yes, we can) and inspiring similar movements around Europe (i.e. La France Insoumise), Pablo Iglesias, the leader of the left, resigned from all his posts on Tuesday night deepening the feeling of defeat. The left was in ruins eleven days before the 10th anniversary of the biggest social movement in Spain since the 1930s: the Indignados movement. In the midst of a global pandemic and with the rise of the far-right all over Europe, including Spain, it has become pertinent to reflect not only on the nature of the Indignados Movement, but its legacies. Influenced initially by the Arab Spring of 2010/2011, the anti-austerity protest spread through numerous European countries, including Iceland, Portugal and Greece, as the ‘occupy’ movement from the USA to the UK and Israel, and continuing in diverse guise in countries such as Mexico (Yosoy132), France (Nuit Debout), Turkey and Hong Kong. The movement also transferred to Europe the model of the protest camp, which had been formed in the Arab Spring, adapting it to a more countercultural framework. Reflecting on the Indignados movement might spark reflections for the left in 2021.

The economic crisis of 2008, also known as the Great Recession in Spain, was mainly caused by the housing bubble and the accompanying unsustainably high GDP growth rate. The ballooning tax revenues from the booming property investment and construction sectors kept the Spanish government’s revenues in surplus, despite strong increases in expenditure, until 2007. The Spanish government, led at the time by the Socialist Party, supported the critical development by relaxing supervision of the financial sector and thereby allowing the banks to violate International Accounting Standards Board (IA SB) standards. The banks were able to hide losses and earnings volatility, mislead regulators, analysts, and investors, and thereby finance the Spanish real estate bubble. The results of the crisis were devastating for Spain, including a strong economic downturn, a severe increase in unemployment, and bankruptcies of major companies.

Anger and indignation was growing from 2008 through 2010 when the Spanish Government applied the first austerity plan. In the centre of this economic disaster, on the 15th May 2011, a mass demonstration was held in Madrid. Thousands of young people marched in the centre of Madrid, demanding jobs, better economic conditions and ‘real democracy’. The demonstrations quickly transformed into a grass roots movement that occupied several plazas in Spain, such as Puerta del Sol square in Madrid. Five days later, it was described as a ‘Spanish Revolution’, while ‘La Puerta del Sol in Madrid is now the country’s Tahir Square, and the Arab Spring has been joined by what is now bracing to become a long European Summer.’ The movement was also compared to Stepahne Heseel’s political manifesto Time For Outrage! [Indignez-Vous!], which was seen to empower Spanish youth. Protestors rallied against high unemployment rates, welfare cuts, politicians, and the two-party system in Spain, as well as the political system, capitalism, banks, and public corruption.   

During May and June 2011, Spanish politics experienced a ‘moment’ of revolutionary change. The indignados movement turned into a ‘laboratory of the political’ where politics could be reimagined and changed. The squares encampments involved first and foremost an awakening –or rediscovering, of the radical imagination. The new communal spaces and projects created in the squares a different world through their production of new space, from collective kitchens to community gardens, art spaces, self-organized kindergartens and common libraries. Rupturing the post-political neoliberal consensus, they represented the continuous materialization, in the here and now, of new radical ideas. For example, when I was a first year undergraduate student in history I read Age of Extremes (1994) by Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm. It made a powerful impact on me. It was not only the history Hobsbawm was telling, but the feeling that we were living the same story again. On the left, which lacked a vision of the future, the past struggles of an old communist who lived in Berlin at the moment the Nazis came to power, who was in Paris in July 1936 at the height of the French Popular Front, who travelled to Spain in the midst of its Civil War, were inspiring. For us, the ‘words’ and ‘sounds’ of Hobsbawm’s narrative of the thirties matched our perception of 2011: the deepest economic crisis since 1929, the discredit of the main political parties, the failure of the free-market and (neo)-liberalism, the rise of far-right parties in Europe and German imposition of austerity on the rest of European countries, especially in southern Europe. If Hobsbawm was fighting the fascists of the thirties, we were fighting the ‘fascists’ of the 2010s. We imagined ourselves as the new antifascist front against the threat of neoliberalism, austerity and the far-right.

One of the most famous slogans was ‘They do not represent us’ [No nos representan]. The core was a critique of liberal democracy and parliamentarism that, in Spain, was represented by the two main parties PP and PSOE who had ruled the country since the establishment of democracy in 1978 after Franco’s dictatorship. One demand was ‘Real Democracy Now!’ [!Democracia Real Ya!]. It was suggested that direct democracy, in contrast to parliament democracy, was the only way to articulate people’s demands. The Indignados movement rejected party politics and, on the contrary, suggested a fluid and diverse social movements that through the exercise of direct democracy would overthrow the Spanish political system born in 1978 [The regime of 1978 as we called it]. Between 2011 and 2014, the Indignados movement had no clear leader and every political decision was taken by delivered assemblies and online voting –a system that reminded Italian Movimento 5 Stelle (M5E). On 2 January 2014 the online newspaper Publico, associated with the Radical Left, published a manifesto entitled: “To move piece: transforming indignation into political change”. [Mover ficha: convertir la indignación en cambio politico]. This initiative was the work of a number of intellectuals and researchers in political science at the Complutense University of Madrid. They proposed the selection of Pablo Iglesias as the candidate for the European Elections based on the fact that he was the most known due to his public interventions in different political programmes in the previous years. It looked like Podemos was going to approximate what some political scientists have defined as a ‘party-movement’ rather than a traditional political party. The success of Podemos in the European elections of 2014 and the rise of the party in the polls created an intense debate of the future of Podemos.

One such dilemma was the question of what kind of party model Podemos should adopt. Podemos was the political party that was born in the context of the crisis, seeking to represent the majority of the people against the establishment or “la casta”. In October 2014, Podemos held a congress in Vistalegre to stake out its future path, and to consider how to define itself as the new political subject in Spanish politics. The congress saw an intense debate about the organization and the strategy of the party. One side, represented by current leader Pablo Iglesias and Iñigo Errejón, advocated the option of constructing Podemos as a centralized, disciplined party around a strong and charismatic leadership. Marx and Lenin became references in the need for unity in the task of conquering the State. In Errejón’s words, the pressing task was to construct an electoral machine to transform political reality. On the other side, the anti-capitalists represented by Pablo Echenique and Teresa Rodriguez sought to construct a decentralised party, where decisions would be taken by the militants in a new form of ‘democracy from below’ circumventing the traditional form of political parties. Both conceptions entangled with the contradictions of the Indignados movement between direct democracy and the traditional party. Iglesias and Errejón’ proposal won and the indignados movement lost one of their key’s identity: its emphasis on direct democracy. Podemos sought to sorpasso (overtake) the Socialist Party as happened in 2012 in Greece with Syriza. It failed in the general elections of 2016. Soon, many argued it was the lack of internal democracy, the opposite of the indignados’s model, that limited the chance of Podemos to win an election. It looked more like a traditional left-wing party rather than the ‘party-movement’. Nonetheless, it is important to remark that in 2017, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of the Left in France, launched La France Insoumise, inspired by Podemos, as a party-movement. While it scored a spectacular 22% of the votes, it also failed to win in France. Since 2016, Podemos has long struggled with factional squabbles and schisms, but it managed to enter Spain’s first coalition government since 1936. Yet, with the defeat of the left in Madrid last week, a debate has opened about what should Podemos as a party be looking back to the democratic foundations of the Indignados movement.

The Revolution will be feminist or it will not be’ [La revolución será feminist o no será]. From the beginning, the Indignados movement campaigned for equality between men and women. In their understanding of democracy as a direct democracy where everyone had the right to express their opinion, only through overthrowing the patriarchal system was full equality possible. Nonetheless, the gap between theory and practice was huge and the Indignados movement failed to articulate feminist demands. By claiming that the movement had no leader and emphasising the social imaginary of a ‘movement’, it shadowed women’s presence in the movement. However, it could be argued that the feminist movement benefited from the Indignados movement. Between 2013 and 2014, conservative justice minister Alberto Ruiz Gallardón tried to almost ban abortion. If approved, it would had been one of the most conservative abortion’s law in Europe. The strong social mobilisation from Indignados and the feminist movement stopped the law to be passed by the parliament; even so the Conservative Party had a majority. When Podemos was founded in 2014, there were strong complaints that women were blocked from progressing within the party. While men mainly formed the core of the party, women populated the sub-level. In the local elections of 2015, Podemos did not run, on the contrary, it presented Popular Candidatures [Candidaturas de Unidad Popular] that were mainly led by women such as Ada Colau and Manuela Carmena in Barcelona and Madrid respectively. These candidatures conquered 4 of the biggest cities in Spain (Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia and Zaragoza|) and increased their power in almost all of Spain.

After the failure of Podemos to overtake the Socialist Party in 2016, feminism emerged as the strongest political and social movement in Spain. From their own background against Gallardón’s law, they found inspiration from other women’s movements from Poland and Argentina whose fights resembled those of 2013-2014. On 3rd October 2016, women in Poland organised a nationwide strike following a Polish parliamentary decision to consider a ban on abortion that would criminalize all terminations. The day became known as Black Monday. On 19th October 2016, saw the #NiUnaMenos protest against femicide in Argentina, a large-scale response to the murder of 16-year-old Lucia Perez. Similar demonstrations took place in other Latin American countries like Mexico, Brasil, El Salvador or Chile.

Women’s group in Poland alongside Argentinian women’s right activists launched the International Women’s strike in 2017. Spain´s feminist movement participated in 2017, but their biggest hit was in 2018. On 8th March 2018, the Spanish feminist movement called for a 24-hour strike. The slogan of the day was ‘if we stop, the world stops’. Instead of the strike being a simple labour strike, women were encouraged to strike in other aspects of their lives. Women were summoned to stop working, to stop attending classes, to cease undertaking care work and to avoid purchasing anything. It was a success and pointed out the direction the left should take in the near future. When snap elections were called in Madrid in February 2020, Pablo Iglesias appointed Yolanda Díaz, minister of Labour and by far the most effective and popular of its government ministers, as the possible candidate of the Left for the coming elections in 2023. Madrid’s elections wiped out men in the left, Ángel Gabilondo from the Socialist Party and Iglesias from Podemos, but not women. They are highly valued in the polls and their prospects look promising. Besides Yolanda Díaz, we found Ada Colau (Catalonia), Teresa Rodríguez (Andalucia), Mónica Oltra (Valencia), Ana Pontón (Galicia), Iona Bellarra (possible future leader of Podemos), Isa Serra (Madrid) or Mónica García. The latter came second in Madrid’s elections with the party Mas Madrid (More Madrid) set up by Iglesias’s former ally and Podemos co-founder Iñigo Errejón. As journalist Anita Botwin reminds her readers, the left has a woman’s face.

Last, but not least, the most powerful arm of the Indignados movement was ‘Stop Eviction’ [Stop Desahucios] led by the Platform of Mortgage Victims [Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca –PAH] whose leader in Barcelona, Ada Colau, became mayor of the city in 2015. From this movement emerged the current green and antiracist movement. The PAH was founded in Barcelona in 2009 and spread rapidly all over Spain to cope with the social exclusionary dynamics of the crisis and respond to the new needs. After the 15M mobilizations and the start of the Indignados movement, the PAH started growing exponentially throughout Spain. It became a social movement capable of influencing public opinion and of providing innovative collective strategies, such as a collective re-negotiation of mortgage debts with financial institutions to support affected families. With their focus on the housing crisis, they challenged the conception of the neoliberal city. The activists emphasised the right of the city to be lived by their citizens. It did not emphasise large political questions on the environment; on the contrary, the ecological thinking emerged as linked to the places and materiality that participants produce and shape through their living, consuming, producing, working, and community building. That was the potential of the right of the city to be lived in by their citizens. Moreover, the PAH was initially formed by immigrants, especially, from South America. When the housing crisis became even bigger in 2010 and 2011, many Spaniards for the first time allied with these immigrant communities. For years, it was believed that this alliance had avoided the emergence of an anti-immigrant party in Spain. Nonetheless, not only was it proved wrong, but because it never articulated an anti-racist policies as some activists like Serigne Mbaye asked, it left an open space to the far-right

With the elections of many left-wing mayor in 2015, the environment became central to some of these local governments like in Madrid and Barcelona, where governments tried to tackle high levels of pollution and, especially Madrid, to build a ‘green’ city. However, while Barcelona tried to integrate better living conditions with green policies, Madrid only focused on the green policies aimed for middle-class citizens. At the end, while Ada Colau kept the hall of Barcelona after the 2019 local elections, Manuela Carmena in Madrid was defeated. Moreover, the antiracist movement, which became stronger with the emergence of the far-right in 2018, was very critical of Madrid’s local government as they did not try to pursue any anti-racist politics.

With the growing of ‘Fridays for Future’ in late 2019 and the resurgence of Black Lives Matter (BLM) in May 2020, the green and anti-racist movement earned a brief centrality in Spanish politics. The green movement had, from the beginning, found it difficult to enter the mainstream of Spanish politics. Contrary to other European countries, there has never been a significant green party. From the last election in Madrid, the Party Mas Madrid (more Madrid) was the only party that sought for a green program to turn Madrid into a more ecological and sustainable community. Its leader at a national level, Iñigo Errejón, has said he would try to pursue a green national strategy for the next general elections in 2024.

The anti-racist movement gained public presence in the electoral list of Podemos by choosing Serigne Mbaye, born-Senegal and Spanish activists, as one of the possible future MPs from Madrid – a position he achieved last week. For the first time, it was possible to hear in prime time a Senegalese activist openly speaking about the need to end with the housing of immigrants while they wait to be regularised, to abolish the immigration law, and to educate society on how to fight back racism. Moreover, Serigne Mbaye has proclaimed that he is a member of the working-class and has implied that anti-racism and working-class politics are not only entangled, but they must fight together. Could the anti-racism movement also revitalise the question of class in the Left? It is too early to tell, but it was encouraging that the most likely candidate of the left for the next general Election in 2024, Yolanda Díaz campaigned with Serigne Mbaye in the last Madrid’s campaign reclaiming class politics and anti-racism as the same struggle.

In sum, ‘Indignados Movement’ was a complex, diverse and democratic movement that reimagined the political landscape in many areas. I have wanted to emphasise three developments from it that were not only relevant in the last decade, but it connects with the current global tendencies toward the triad of anti-racism, feminism and green politics. The left in Spain is struggling between how to balance a global approach with the specificity of the Spanish case. Many of the left experienced a feeling of dismay at the end of the electoral cycle after the electoral defeat in Madrid last week. Similar to the Angel of Benjamin, the left looks at its past [the Indignados movement] while history still moves forward. In January 1848, Alexis de Tocqueville, author of Democracy in America (1835), addressed the chamber of deputies in France, in a prophetic speech he stated that ‘I am told that there is no danger because there are no riots; I am told that, because there is no visible disorder on the surface of society, there is no revolution at hand. Gentlemen, permit me to say that I believe you are mistaken.’ The social and economic consequences of the pandemic are feared in the entire political spectrum in Spain. Both right and left are unsure what kind of social mobilization will explode from this. Like Tocqueville warned the French deputies in the eve of the revolution of 1848, ‘I believe that we are at this moment sleeping on a volcano’. Let’s not forget Karl Marx’s eleven theses on Feuerbach to encourage political action: ‘Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.’

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