• May 15 and the Spanish Revolution

  • Armando Fernández Steinko | 27 Oct 11 | Posted under: Spain , Social Movements and Trade Unions
  • In Spain the crisis of 2007/2008 marked the end of a long political cycle. Since the 1980s, a big centre coalition tried to build a modern welfare state on the ruins of a destroyed labour society and to finance it through speculation and debts. From a historical perspective, this project (“finance-capitalist welfare state”) is done and over with. A process of re-foundation attempted by Izquierda Unida for two years now, which corresponds to this situation , has arrived at a halt due to internal blockades.

    In response to this, a group of left intellectuals, trade unionists and activists initiated an appeal signed by several thousand citizens in only a few weeks, which received great attention in the media. Independently of their party-political loyalties, the citizens were to say NO to neoliberalism and gather around “tables” throughout the entire country to plan actions against neoliberalism. The tables represent spaces in which a practical and direct opposition can be articulated against banks, corruption and massive social cutbacks. A short time after the publication of the appeal a small group of urban youth organised a demonstration against both corruption in the economy and politics and against the two-party system and the grand coalition sustaining it. Some of their initiators had signed the “appeal for the tables”. Others had given up fighting from inside the institutions against the blockades and procrastination of the left parties. Most of them were apolitical and “overqualified” people who saw no future for themselves despite their academic education.

    Surprisingly successful

    The movements in Northern Africa but also the big demonstration in Portugal – all of which came about without party initiation and outside party structures – had an inspirational effect. The demonstration, which was also supported by ATTAC and the tables, was a major success not so much due to the number of participants but due to a broad and sustained wave of sympathy expressed by 80% of the population and reaching into the remotest villages. Police repression at the Puerta de Sol in Madrid prompted a surge of solidarity and contributed to the further expansion of the movement. On more than 100 squares in the country well-organised tent camps were erected, which were actively supported by citizens previously politically inactive. In these camps, canteens, libraries and discussion groups sprang up in which topics such as the financial system, gender questions, corruption, the privatisation of copyright, etc. were debated. For weeks, they were populated by both young and older people who were politically active for the first time or who had not been active for many years. The decision was made to call new decentralised assemblies in order to reach more citizens including in the working-class districts and to address them politically.

    The left establishment was not prepared for the massive wave of sympathy expressed by the population and was partly overwhelmed. It turned out that the May 15 demonstration had the effect of catalysing a deep indignation, up to then not clearly articulated and – similar to the events of the 1960s – directed against the social structures. The local elections one week later gave expression to this trend through a high degree of voter abstention, which was partly a very conscious decision, by only very modest increases of votes for left parties and a landslide defeat for the PSOE. Consequently, bank branches (e.g. Banco de Santander, which is responsible for the speculation with Spanish public securities) were occupied, demonstrations took place in front of town halls into whose city councils corrupt politicians entered after the elections, and flats, threatened by forced evictions due to a failure of mortgage payments, were squatted. To the present day, actions of this kind still occur.

    Anti-neoliberal direction of impact

    A big demonstration had been announced for June 19 against the Euro-Pact. This brought the “Spanish Revolution” closer to the sphere of anti-neoliberalism. Since the summer, the financial markets have been gnawing at Spain’s social Community Acquis. Prime Minister Zapatero took this as an occasion to solidify neoliberalism in a rapid procedure – by amending the Constitution to limit budget deficits. This means an end to the social compromises of the transition period after the downfall of the Franco system. The changing of the Constitution, and still more the rapid procedure in which it was pushed through, triggered general indignation, in particular among the trade unions. This led them to join the May 15 Movement in protest against this measure. The organisers of the protest movement, who also radically rejected this step, were surprised to be joined by the trade unions that only a few months before had signed a ruinous pact with the government – under the pretext of protecting old-age pensions against the financial markets.

    The question now is how to continue. Can the mass movement be stabilised? How can a constant network of citizens organised by the principle of solidarity be built, one that creates a permanent low intensity rebellion against the consequences of neoliberalism? How can hegemony be upheld in the streets and on the squares of the country and how can it be linked up strategically to organised labour and the left parties? How can reciprocal mistrust be dispelled in order to unite the “three legs” of the opposition against neoliberalism?

    The tables have developed a format, which they have been using successfully for months. First, they have succeeded in drawing up joint lists for the upcoming elections in Aragon comprising a left regional party and Izqierda Unida – this could well serve as an example for other regions as well. In fact, the tables have become mediators between trade unions, the May 15 Movement and the left parties. However, the founding of Equo, an initiative financed by the Greens in the European Parliament, who want to establish a strong green party in Spain based on the German model has the opposite effect. This dynamic runs counter to the general wish for establishing left alliances. Equo will not find it all that easy to appeal to potential voters from the enlightened, urban milieu. On the other end of the left spectrum, Izqierda Anticapitalista, an ultra-left party founded on the model of the French NPA, has come to regard its original project as a failure and has embarked on a strategic process of discussion, the outcome of which is uncertain.

    Further pending questions

    Crucial questions remain open: What are the relations to institutionalised power, to the system of left parties, to elections altogether? That the demands of the May 15 Movement need to be articulated in the institutions has meanwhile become clear to most protagonists. Nevertheless, there is no chance that the Movement can gather behind what Izquierda Unida (IU) is today and even less behind other parties (the left nationalist parties and the ultra left have been playing a more than marginal role in this process).

    The current leadership of IU has so far taken no noteworthy steps in the direction of its “re-foundation” that was agreed upon by the majority – and which was to include a profound internal democratisation, the overcoming of local and closed power constellations, which creates a distance between many activists of the Movement and the coalition, and a strategic approach to social movements, etc. For many months the coalition’s stocktaking of the political and economic situation had been all but realistic, which has led to its lagging behind the Movement, even if many of its members had personally been actively involved in it, even in leading positions and right from the start. Meanwhile, a process of learning has begun. But time is short, since new elections have been scheduled for November 20. Although there are attempts to establish broad left alliances for the elections (Frentes Amplios) with other left forces and possible splinter groups from the PSOE, the fact remains that only a broadly defined, relatively open space on the model of the French Front de Gauche would really be capable of bringing together left socialists and other formations and tendencies.

    The tables as bearers of hope

    The tables at which almost the entire left spectrum is represented serve as mediators between left parties, organised labour movement and new social movements. They are trying to deconstruct deeply rooted distrust. Little time remains for this difficult task. Although the May 15 Movement is acting very consciously politically and is directing its criticism against the two-party-system rather than against parties in general, the scepticism regarding institutionalised politics continues to be very great, and it is impossible to overcome from one day to the other. The speed at which events take place is not the ideal context for those who continue to be oriented towards gradual changes, ritualised forms of politics and rounded-off forms of organisation – attitudes and creeds which still find the support of majorities within left organisations.


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